When a Business Can Be Sued for Personal Injury

What conditions must exist for a business to be liable for injuries to a customer or visitor?

Updated by , J.D.

For every company, big or small, that welcomes customers or visitors onto its premises, personal injury lawsuits are a cost of doing business. Even when businesses are fortunate enough to avoid being sued for several years, the potential for civil liability for injuries may nonetheless be reflected in the bottom line through insurance and other costs.

Every customer has a right to feel relatively safe when stepping foot on the premises of a business. The business has an obligation to provide a reasonably safe environment for the customer to shop. When the business fails to meet that obligation, and the customer becomes injured, the customer may be able to sue the business for the resulting injuries.

There are three basic elements of a personal injury lawsuit against a business for a slip and fall on the business's property (these make up a typical negligence claim):

  • a duty of care owed by the business to the customer,
  • a breach of the duty of care, and
  • harm caused by the breach.

In order to prevail in a personal injury lawsuit against a business, a customer must prove each of those elements. In the sections that follow, this article will discuss each element, and the type of evidence that a customer might use as proof.

Proving Duty of Care

A business that welcomes customers onto its property has a duty to act reasonably to ensure the safety of those customers. This duty does not mean that businesses will be liable for any injury suffered by a customer or visitor. Courts understand that a business could never prevent all injuries, and the cost of coming close to that standard would be overly burdensome.

So, courts impose a reasonableness standard on businesses. The requirements of this standard can vary based on the context of any given case. Also, laws vary by state. But keeping those caveats in mind, below are some examples of things that the reasonableness standard might require of businesses:

  • Create and follow a procedure to regularly inspect the premises for defects that could cause harm to customers.
  • Regularly clean the premises to prevent slips and falls.
  • Warn customers of wet floors by placing warning signs near the location of the danger.
  • Provide a mat or rug near entranceways while it is raining outside to avoid the accumulation of water on store floors.
  • Immediately repair cracked or crumbling pavement near the entranceway.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it provides some examples of what safety standards may be required of businesses.

In many situations, expert testimony may be necessary to determine the proper standard in a particular case. In such a situation, an expert with knowledge of safety standards in the industry in question will testify as to the safety standards expected in particular contexts.

Proving Breach of Duty

When a business fails to fulfill its duty of care, the business is said to have "breached" the duty. For example, if a customer at a supermarket slips on a spilled product, there are several different ways in which the business may have breached a duty of care. Perhaps the business failed to create a cleaning schedule that would regularly remove spills from the floor. Perhaps the business did create such a cleaning schedule, but failed to adhere to the schedule on the day in question. Perhaps an employee noticed the spill and had intended to clean it up, but became distracted by another task and forgot about the mess.

Any one of those errors could be considered the breach of a duty of care. Note that each breach corresponds to a different duty of care. Thus, the key to proving a breach is first proving the proper duty of care under the circumstances.

Proving Harm Caused by the Breach

In order to win a personal injury lawsuit, the customer must also prove that the breach caused harm. This harm can take many forms, including:

  • pain and suffering
  • cost of medical bills
  • loss of earning capacity, and
  • loss of the ability to enjoy life's pleasures in the same way as prior to the injury.

The critical issue is whether the breach actually caused the harm. It is insufficient to show that a customer suffered harm after a fall, and attempt to leave it at that.

For example, imagine a customer falls near the entrance of a store. There was cracked pavement near the location of the fall, but the customer did not actually trip over the cracked pavement, and instead tripped over their own untied shoelaces. In such a case, the customer would probably not be able to win a lawsuit against the store. The store may have breached a duty of care (by failing to repair the broken cement) and a customer may have become injured. But in this case the breach was unrelated to the injury. Even if the cement had been in perfect condition, the fall would have occurred. Thus, the business would not be liable for the injury.

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