The "big box mart" era is in full-swing in the United States and many of us find ourselves in one of these stores at least once a week. These are not standard grocery stores or local drug stores, but the Home Depots, the Targets, the Super K-Marts, and the quintessential Walmart. These stores offer us the chance for one-stop-shopping with low prices. We enter these stores ourselves and with our families and friends thinking only of shopping and finding the best deals of the day. We do not think that our innocent foray into the aisles of Walmart may land us in the hospital with a serious injury. While this sounds silly and seems unlikely, the truth is that thousands of people have been injured by falling merchandise in this country and the number keeps rising. The warehouse style storage of items for sale and the lack of help for accessing all that stuff on high shelves makes these stores, especially likely to have tumbling merchandise hitting folks on the head or shoulders while shopping.
Every week hundreds of claims are made by customers against large retailers for injuries they have sustained in a falling merchandise incident. For many of the people who are involved in an accident like this, the injuries may not be more severe than cuts and bruises; however, sadly, when children or the elderly are involved, falling merchandise can prove to be fatal. The problem with cases like this is that we as customers at these stores are not in control of our surroundings. Obviously, it is important that we take notice of signs or instructions in stores and that we are aware of what is going on around us. However, our safety is really placed in the hands of the store and its employees.
Often times, falling merchandise incidents occur because of improperly trained employees. These workers are not properly trained in the methods for safely stacking and storing merchandise or how to properly operate machinery. One incident in which a child was killed at Home Depot store involved a worker who was driving a forklift with countertops precariously balanced on it which then fell and caused the child to suffer severe head trauma from which she died the next day.
When a store invites customers into its facility, it has a duty to use ordinary care to keep the store reasonably safe and that means that all employees should be properly trained and all merchandise should be properly stored, stacked, and secure. This also means that the store has a duty to take reasonable steps in monitoring high stacked merchandise and if a customer moves or shifts something, an employee needs to inspect that it has not become dangerous. This is about accountability for store owners, managers, and their employees. This is a long-standing doctrine in the law that invitees (customers) are owed a duty of care and that if that duty is violated, it generally means that the business is liable for harms caused by its carelessness.
If you or a loved one are ever involved in a falling merchandise case, it is extremely important that you find witnesses immediately and that you yourself make a record of the incident. It is key to do this as close to the incident as possible when the details are still fresh in your mind. You want to be able to show that it was the negligence of the store that caused your injuries. While not all injuries are severe, it is important to seek treatment or at least to consult your physician after an accident like this, since some injuries may not be immediately apparent and only your doctor can advise you on what to watch out for.
While it is true that accidents do happen in stores and that they happen rather more frequently than we would like, at this time of the year, try not to let such worries dampen your shopping spirit. But watch out, as it is not just prices that are falling!
Rick Shapiro has practiced personal injury law for over two decades in Virginia, North Carolina, and throughout the Southeastern United States. He is a Board Certified Civil Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy (ABA Accredited) and has litigated injury cases throughout the eastern United States, including wrongful death, trucking, faulty products, railroad and medical negligence claims. His success in and out of the court room is a big reason why he was named 2019 “Lawyer of the Year” in railroad law in U.S. News & World Report's Best Lawyers publication (Norfolk, VA area), and he has been named a “Best Lawyer” and “Super Lawyer” by those peer reviewed organizations for many years.