A Store's Liability for Slip and Fall Accidents

When you slip and fall in a store, the business owner (and their liability insurer) could be on the financial hook for your injuries and related losses.

Updated by , J.D.

If you slip and fall in a store, you might have a personal injury claim against the business, or against the property owner, or perhaps both. These cases aren't always easy to prove, however. Here's what to know right off the bat:

  • Whether it's a "big box" nationwide chain like Walmart or Target, or a local independent retailer, any business is obligated to take certain steps to keep customers out of harm's way.
  • The store's liability insurance coverage will likely play a big part in your injury claim, but be prepared to show some level of carelessness on the part of the store or one of its employees.
  • A look at a few real-world slip and fall cases against some pretty well known stores might offer a sense of how these cases tend to play out.

A Store's Duty to Maintain Safe Premises

Like all businesses that open themselves up to the public, stores are legally obligated to maintain reasonably safe property conditions for the protection of visitors and customers. (More: What is premises liability?)

When a slip and fall accident happens at a department store, grocery store, or even a local "mom and pop" store, the business may be liable for injuries and related losses if the injured person can show that the slip and fall was the result of unsafe conditions on the property.

Was There Negligence Involved In the Slip and Fall?

A store's potential fault for a slip and fall accident usually hinges on the legal theory of "negligence." In simple terms, negligence occurs in these kinds of cases when the store owner or a store employee fails to act with reasonable care, and a customer is injured as a result. Usually this means that either:

  • the store or an employee created an unsafe condition, or
  • the store or an employee knew (or should have known) about the unsafe condition and didn't fix it within a reasonable time.

Did the Store/Employee Create the Unsafe Condition?

The store owner may be liable if it created the unsafe condition, by using an exceptionally slippery wax to clean its floors, for example.

Did the Store/Employee Know About the Unsafe Condition?

The store owner may also be liable if it knew of the condition, even if it did not create it, but failed to take steps to remedy it. For instance, if one customer spills a drink in an aisle, and another customer injures her back after slipping on the puddle and falling on the floor, the store may be liable for the injury. In that circumstance, the injured person will have to show some evidence that the store knew or should have reasonably known of the condition.

Did the Store/Employee Have a Chance to Eliminate or Reduce the Danger?

There must be some evidence that the spill sat there long enough for the store to have become aware of its presence and have a reasonable opportunity to clean it up and prevent an accident. The injured party may also demonstrate that the store knew (or should have known) that spilled products were common, but failed to have a system in place for monitoring and cleaning up such spills.

In addition, the injured customer will likely have to show that the condition was not so open and obvious that the customer should have taken steps to avoid the unsafe condition.

For instance, a customer generally can't recover for injuries sustained from tripping over a large display when the display was clearly visible in the customer's pathway, and the use of such displays is commonplace in similar stores. In other words, a customer is required to exercise reasonable caution to protect themselves, and can't hold the store accountable for every last thing that goes wrong. The key question to ask is whether a reasonably careful customer would have noticed the unsafe condition and avoided it. If so, then the store might avoid liability for the injury.

Was There a Sign or Other Warning?

It's a similar issue with warning signs, cones, and other attempts to warn customers of the presence of a hazard. The key question here is whether a reasonably careful customer would have noticed the sign or other warning, heeded it, and avoided injury. Learn more about when a warning sign might limit a property owner's liability.

Get details on proving your slip and fall case.

Who Do You Sue for a Slip and Fall Injury In a Store?

Typically the defendant in a lawsuit over an in-store slip and fall is the store owner, whether that's an individual, a partnership, a corporation, or any other kind of business entity.

In some instances, if the store owner does not own the property on which the injury occurred, a slip and fall lawsuit might be brought against the property owner or whoever was responsible for inspecting and maintaining the property.

Note that even when a store employee was negligent, the business owner as the employer would still be liable for the slip and fall claimant's injuries and other losses, under a legal theory known as "respondeat superior." Learn more about business, business owner, and employee liability for personal injury.

What Are Common Causes of In-Store Slip and Fall Injuries?

The presence of almost any kind of obstruction or unexpected condition can cause a customer to slip and fall in a store. Some of the most common sources of these kinds of incidents are:

  • spills of water, other liquid, or food items in store aisles
  • merchandise that ends up in aisles or other walkways
  • equipment, wires, and other obstructions left in areas where customers walk
  • broken floor tiles, torn carpets, and other flooring defect issues
  • accumulation of snow or ice in the entry way of the store
  • broken handrails or stairstep damage on stairways
  • sub-par lighting leading to poor visibility, and
  • failure to cordon off or post warning of temporary hazards.

The possibilities are endless, but regardless of the cause of the slip and fall accident, the legal responsibility of the store will often depend on whether it had reasonable notice of the unsafe condition and a chance to fix it, and still failed to do so (more details on store liability a bit later on).

Holding a Store Liable for a Slip and Fall

We've established that a store can be legally responsible for injuries resulting from unsafe conditions. But from a practical standpoint, how does an injured customer go about getting compensation? There are usually two main options, though they're not mutually exclusive:

  • filing an insurance claim with the store owner's commercial liability or general liability insurance policy, which if successful, would result in a settlement that compensates you for your injuries and related losses, and/or
  • filing a personal injury lawsuit against the store owner in court, which if successful (and in the rare even the case goes all the way to trial) would result in a judgment for the injured plaintiff, and an order that the store (as defendant) pay the plaintiff money (called "damages" in the language of the law); keep in mind that the store's liability insurer would be on the financial hook here, up to policy limits.

The reason we say these two options aren't mutually exclusive is that an insurance claim can escalate into a lawsuit, and a lawsuit, once filed, can still be settled out of court at any time. For everything you need to know about settlement, check out our Personal Injury Settlement FAQ.

In-Store Slip and Fall Settlement Value

A common question on the minds of slip and fall claimants is "How much is my case worth?" Every case is unique, so it's tough to provide any ballpark figures without knowing about key factors like the nature and extent of injuries and the impact of those injuries on the claimant's life. Learn how to figure out how much a slip and fall claim is worth and how to calculate personal injury settlement value.

Getting Help After a Slip and Fall Accident

There are some kinds of personal injury cases that might make sense for the claimant to handle on their own, but a case stemming from an in-store slip and fall usually isn't one of them.

If your injuries were pretty minor and the store's liability insurance carrier is offering you what looks to be a fair settlement, it might make sense to take the money and move on with your life without getting a lawyer involved.

But if your injuries are significant, and there are questions about who is most at fault for your slip and fall accident (the store or you), it's probably a good idea to at least discuss your situation with an experienced legal professional. That's especially true if you were injured in a "bog box" or chain store, which will have plenty of resources and motivation to defend itself.

Learn more about how a lawyer can help with a slip and fall case, and hiring a personal injury lawyer. If you're ready to reach out for legal help now after a slip and fall, you can use the features right on this page to connect with a personal injury attorney in your area.

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