June 18, 2006

Corporate In-Store Safety: Responsibility and Liability

Posted in Business, Me at 6:50 pm by mj

This weekend, my mom slipped on a wet surface inside a Wal-Mart store and broke her hip. She’s currently at the University hospital, where she will undergo surgery.

For its part, Wal-Mart (apparently) has a policy in place to cover its ass: its own employees voluntarily served as witnesses, and took photographic evidence of the scene before cleaning up the floor. Doubtlessly, Wal-Mart has run the numbers and determined that they’ll average smaller payouts by being helpful and considerate, than by trying to deny everything.

This brings up the question, to which I’m trying to find answers, of whether there are any strict legal standards for safety at a store, restaurant, etc., and whether systemic uncleanliness is a factor.

For example, I’m not a big fan of Wal-Mart stores. Notice I didn’t say I’m not a big fan of Wal-Mart, the successful corporation that has innovated in many areas of business, driven down prices, and tends to serve lower income families better than their competitors. I just can’t stand their physical stores, which tend to be cramped, crowded, smelly, ill-organized and, well, just plain messy.

What’s always struck me about Wal-Mart is how many hazards I’ve seen. It seems every time I enter their store, there is either a (metal) shelf coming loose, with a sharp end sticking out (I’ve been cut on those twice); or a puddle of laundry detergent on the floor; or oddly-shaped boxes sticking out into the middle of the aisle; etc.

Given this, is Wal-Mart (legally, not ethically) more responsible when a 60-year-old woman slips and breaks her hip, because their store policies tend to discourage putting cleanliness and safety above employee convenience? Or does the law run the other way, and put the responsibility in the hands of customers to know that Wal-Mart stores are usually not paragons of safety? Or does Wal-Mart’s pattern of behavior have absolutely no legal impact on an individual incident of a customer getting injured?

On the personal side of this, her injury is apparently not as bad as it could have been, and I’ve been told not to travel home for her surgery, but I do worry about how it will affect her health and mobility as she ages. This could restrict her to a wheelchair a decade sooner, or cause her blood pressure to rise, or more subtly affect her medical well-being. I guess it’s just wait-and-see at this point.



  1. Tony said,

    I am currently in contact with this company re: a remarkably similar incident concerning ME. Although I was not injured as severely as your Mom, I was injured.

    Any insight as to how this is going for you would be helpful for my situation…

    many thanks

    Tony 4/6/07

  2. mj said,

    Hi Tony,

    There’s not much update at the moment, I’m afraid. I’ve heard it usually takes 1-3 years for these kinds of things.

    My mom’s condition continues to improve with much work, although she’s still mostly house-bound. Her lawyer is periodically in touch with Wal-Mart’s lawyers, and it sounds like there will be a settlement once all the bills and final medical prognosis are submitted and agreed on. Much of that has happened already, including getting statements from her surgeon.

    I’m sure her lawyer’s staff is doing a lot of legal legwork and maneuvering that I’m not aware of, and even if I knew more, I think I’d probably be advised to not discuss it until after it’s all over. 🙂

    One thing: her lawyer gets a cut of the final settlement, and gets a larger cut if it goes to court, but gets nothing otherwise. I probably don’t have to tell you that that’s probably what you should look for in a lawyer for your case. It’s also probably best to find a lawyer through a recommendation (as we did), not the phone book.

    I hope it works out for you. Don’t go in expecting or demanding a huge payout. If you happen to drop back in checking for a response (I didn’t see your comment until today, 9 days later, sorry!), would you mind elaborating on what happened to you?

    Oh – and I still don’t have a good legal answer to the questions I posed originally.

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