Warning sign slipperySome people still assume that if a customer is injured at a business, the business is responsible to pay for the harms and losses of the customer. That is not true. The business has to do something wrong that caused the injury before it will be legally responsible to pay.

So what might the business have done wrong that led to an injury? This may be oversimplification, but if a business fails to provide a reasonably safe environment for its customers, it has likely violated the law. As part of its duty to provide a reasonably safe environment, the business, its employees should regularly inspect the property for unreasonably dangerous conditions. If they discover such a condition, then the employees should warn customers of it and fix it.

Here is a common example: Water on a tile floor is likely an unreasonably dangerous condition because a customer can easily be injured by slipping on it. So, a store shouldn’t do anything to create water on the tile floor, and employees should be inspecting the floor regularly enough to find the condition if it gets there some other way (spilled by another shopper, for example). If the employees find water on the floor, they should warn of the danger (put out signs) and fix the danger by cleaning it up. However, the store is only required to act “reasonably,” so if employees have just checked an aisle for cleanliness, 2 minutes later a customer spills water in the aisle, and 30 seconds later another shopper slips in it, the store would probably not be found responsible.  Employees can’t be everywhere, all the time. That would be “unreasonable.” But if that spill had been there for an hour, that may be viewed as too long between inspections to be considered “reasonable” efforts to discover dangers.  There is not really any specific timeline requirement. What society would consider “reasonable” will vary according to the specific circumstances.

The reason I am writing this explanation is that, yesterday, while eating lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, I watched employees of that restaurant violate a business’s duty to warn of, or remedy, an unreasonably dangerous condition it knows exists (in my opinion).

The floor in this restaurant is a dark, polished concrete. A young man clearing tables (a “busser”) spilled water on the floor right next to my table. The area where the spilled water is pooled on the floor, in three separate puddles, is an area where both workers and customers walk. The biggest of the puddles is currently about 10 inches across; the other two about 7 inches. This, I believe, caused an unreasonably dangerous condition, on which someone could slip, fall, and be seriously hurt. I have seen many blown out knees, hips, backs, heads, etc. from such falls, often followed by surgical repairs.

Within seconds, the busser grabbed a “wet floor” warning sign and put it in the area of the spill. I was impressed. He had immediately given warning of the dangerous condition. He hustled away, and I expected him to return immediately with a towel or mop to sop up the water—to eliminate the dangerous condition, through which customers and employees could still walk. However, that did not happen.

Instead, he, other workers, and patrons spent the next 15 minutes stepping around the puddles. Yes, there was a sign on the floor, but it would have been easy for a worker or patron to be looking ahead, not down, and miss both the signs and the puddles. Given how easy it would be to just clean it up, leaving the danger there seems unreasonable to me.

Fifteen minutes after the spill happened, the table clearing young man came and took the warning sign down. Since the puddles were still there, I assumed he was finally going to clean them up. No, again. He just took the sign down, but the puddles were still there—smaller now from some evaporation, but not by much.

It took a full 40 minutes from the time of the spill for them to be gone. Employees were aware of them and kept stepping over. When other diners ventured by, I warned them to step around.

I have handled a few slip-and-fall accidents during my career. It is notoriously difficult to prove that the business did anything wrong. What if, in the instance I witnessed, a customer came around the corner of my table and slipped in that water 25 minutes after the spill. How would that customer know that an employee spilled the water 25 minutes before and never cleaned it up—that he had even removed a warning sign before the water was gone? A witness like me never exists, and this restaurant does not have cameras in the dining area. The employees are witnesses, but what do you think they will remember about this incident when they are testifying a year later—if you can find them? This is the most likely testimony: “Spill, what spill? And if there was a spill, it was probably that guy sitting at the table (me), just before the customer came around the corner.” So, even if a business screws up, it is usually hard to prove.  If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact Attorney Kevin Fine with Davis Miles McGuire Gardner at (480) 733-6800 or via email kfine@davismiles.com.