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Premises Liability

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By Patrick N. George

Recently the Idaho Supreme Court had an opportunity to discuss premises liability and slip and falls which occur in stores. The case is called Brooks v. Walmart Stores, Inc._Idaho_, _p.3d (2018). In this case, Walmart and Rug Doctor had an agreement where customers at Walmart could rent carpet cleaning machines. The process by which a customer obtained the rental was self-service. On the day of the accident, Brooks went to Walmart to purchase some wood chips for her yard. When she went to a cashier, she was directed to customer service. From there she was escorted towards the garden center. As she walked towards the garden center, she passed the self-service Rug Doctor kiosk and slipped and fell due to a puddle of water that had formed and had come from the Rug Doctor kiosk. As a result of the fall, Brooks was injured.

The Supreme Court noted that in an action for negligence Idaho has four elements;

  1. A duty which required Walmart to conform to a certain standard of conduct.
  2. A breach of that duty.
  3. A causal connection between Walmart’s conduct and the resulting injury.
  4. Actual loss or damage.

The Court further reminds the reader that every person has a duty to act in a reasonable fashion to avoid injuring others. The Court then reaffirmed its long-standing classification system for determining what sort of care a landowner owes to a person on its property. In the case of Walmart, where a person is there for business reasons, the customer is defined as an invitee. This is important because a land owner owes the highest duty of care to an invitee, that is, to keep the premises reasonably safe and to warn of any dangers which it knows about, or that it should have known about, if it had investigated the premises in a reasonable fashion.

The Court noted in the Brooks v. Walmart case that, although Walmart may not have had actual notice of the water on the floor, the jury should have been allowed to consider whether Walmart had exercised reasonable care in familiarizing itself with the risks which were involved with having a self-service operation that one could reasonably see would lead to water on the floor. The Court pointed out that the jury should have considered whether Rug Doctor machines can leak from their nozzle or their hoses onto the floor, whether the machines can be returned with water remaining in them, and what the process is by which a person returns a machine or rents the same. In short, it appears that Walmart had not considered whether those machines could leak or spill water.

One of Walmart’s arguments was that the incident was isolated, and they could not have known prior to the accident that there was a danger in that area. However, the Supreme Court noted that constructive notice is sufficient to warn Walmart of potentially leaky machines on its premises and requiring Walmart to act reasonably when it comes to managing those machines.

There are some important lessons that can be learned from this decision. First, it’s a reminder that store owners or businesses have a duty of care which requires them to be aware of dangers on their premises whether or not they had actual notice of the potentially harmful circumstance. They should adopt a program where dangers are sought out and eliminated before their customers are injured. Second, merely because an injury has never occurred before at a particular location in a store does not mean that the store cannot be held liable for a dangerous condition. Rather, if it’s foreseeable that an injury could occur there, reasonable steps to eliminate the danger are required. Finally, this case points out the highly protected status that customers are given inside stores or on business premises.

If you have been seriously injured as a result of a slip and fall or other injury at a business, give us a call. We’ll be happy to review the facts with you and discuss the intricacies of the law surrounding this complex area. Problem solved.

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