June 18, 2006
Corporate In-Store Safety: Responsibility and Liability
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.