I recently read about a case that made me think about some of the basic elements of a civil suit. In this case, a woman sustained horrendous injuries when she was shopping in a retail store and a stack of countertops fell on her. American Association for Justice, “Heavy merchandise falls on store patron” TRIAL magazine, January 2010, p.16. The countertops were stacked on their “side”, so that they extended all the way up the wall, but took up only a few feet of floor space – if you can picture that. The jury found in the woman’s favor, that the store had been negligent in not displaying the countertops in a more stable position that would be less likely to fall over.
This is a good decision, and here’s why: the legal system should encourage stores to avoid creating dangerous or hazardous conditions , especially when there is an easy, no-cost alternative to the dangerous condition while still achieving the same result. In this case, the desired “result” was to display and eventually sell the countertops. Presumably, if store managers around the country are aware of decisions like this, then they will make many small decisions that result in safer stores and less customer injuries in the future. This is how tort cases benefit everyone, not just the person who is injured.
This case illustrates another important point for anyone who is injured on someone else’s property: you probably must prove “fault”. Under the legal concept of “negligence”, you can only sue someone when they have done something or failed to do something that caused your injuries. In the case described in the article, the store displayed the countertops in an unstable position, where it easily could have stored them on their longer side or stored them flat. That was their negligent act.
If you or someone you know is injured on somebody else’s property , ask yourself: Did the property owner do something to create the danger? Even if they did not create the danger, did they know about the danger but fail to take reasonable steps to correct or properly warn of the dangerous condition? If you end up needing medical treatment and have reason to believe that someone could have prevented it, then be prepared to answer those questions.