Almost a third of our cases involve slip and falls and trip and falls and the vast majority of these involve grocery stores or restaurants. These businesses are stocked with liquids and slippery substances so this should not be surprising. Customers are going to be exposed to more hazards per square foot and that means the store needs to exercise greater precautions to look for hazards.
Grocery stores in Georgia are far more dangerous than other commercial enterprises, and account for a disproportionate number of injuries each year. This is partly due to the fact that they are a routine destination and receive almost constant foot traffic. However, the real nature of the hazard is the business itself. Food products, especially liquids and fresh produce, present a constant danger to shoppers. Grocery stores are well aware of this and the responsible ones make a serious effort to carefully monitor their floors to protect shoppers from slip hazards. The less responsible grocers (and some of the largest chains seem to fall into this category) work much harder to protect themselves from law suits than they do to protect shoppers from harm. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell the difference until it’s too late.
Responsible grocery stores will strictly enforce a frequent inspection regimen for each isle in their store. Surprisingly Publix does not have a set national policy on inspections and Kroger’s policy involves inspections around every hour.
There is no reason why a store employee cannot visually inspect each isle every 15 minutes or so. Yet, our experience representing people seriously injured by slipping on liquids or other dangerous material suggests that most grocers cut corners on safety by not patrolling the isles as they should. Rather, they tend to rely on “spot checking” or even worse, checking an isle only after a spill has been reported. This haphazard approach leaves many dangerous spills undetected until a shopper is seriously hurt during a fall. To be clear, most grocery stores do have written rules stating that their employees must routinely and frequently inspect the isles for hazards. However, far fewer actually put that written policy into consistent practice.
When a shopper is seriously hurt by falling on a slick or wet grocery floor, how does she prove that the store failed to properly monitor its isles to check for potential hazards? This question is key because Georgia law does not allow shoppers to recover money damages from grocery stores merely because the shopper slipped on a foreign substance on the store floor. Rather, the injured customer must prove that the store knew, or should have known, about the potential hazard and failed to either correct it or to warn about it. Proving that the store should have known about a spill requires the collection of several pieces of key evidence.
Most grocery stores have video surveillance that provides constant video footage of each aisle in the store. Collecting and preserving the video is essential and must be done quickly before it is lost or erased. The video can be used to establish how recently the isle was inspected by a store employee prior to a fall, and may even show exactly how and when the spill occurred. After securing the surveillance video, the next step is to obtain copies of the grocery store’s written policies for inspecting and cleaning its store floors. These documents will often set forth a precise protocol for when and how the floors should be cleaned and inspected.
In addition to obtaining the stores’ written policies, copies of any documentation establishing whether or not the store followed its own rules must be collected. The most common document used by grocery stores is a “Sweep Log” that shows the precise date and time the employee inspected each part of the store. The name of the employee conducting the inspection is also listed on the Sweep Log. However, just because the store produces written rules showing that it has a responsible inspection program in place, and also produces a Sweep Log to establish that the inspection program has been complied with, this does not end the investigation.
The store manager must be questioned under oath about whether the policies in place are uniformly followed. Perhaps more importantly, the employee whose name appears on the applicable sweep log must be questioned under oath about whether he actually performed the store sweep, or whether (as some employees do) he just filled out the form without actually inspecting the floor.
Grocery stores realize that their facilities pose a hazard to the shopping public and that they will be asked to pay for damages when falls occur. Most adopt a very hard line about paying these claims in an effort to keep costs down. Forcing grocery stores to pay can only be accomplished by relentlessly gathering all available evidence to establish the stores’ legal responsibility.
They say eating fatty foods can kill you. However, just walking down a grocery store isle to buy them isn’t always that much safer.