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Florida Supermarket Not Liable to Plaintiff Who Slipped Seconds after a Spill – Dominguez v. Publix Super Markets, Inc.

Spilled items on the floor of a supermarket can create a risk of falls.  Florida has a law that specifically addresses a business’ liability in situations when a person is injured as the result of such a “transitory foreign substance.” § 768.0755, Florida Statutes.  The injured person must prove the business had either actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard and that it should have done something to correct it.  The injured person may show constructive knowledge by showing that the substance had been there long enough that the business should have known of it by exercising ordinary care or that the condition occurred with such regularity as to create foreseeability.

file9551246814621Since it can be difficult to prove actual knowledge, the length of time a substance was on the floor before the fall is often the critical issue in a slip and fall case, as in Dominguez v. Publix Super Markets, Inc. The defendant’s video surveillance captured the events that led to this case.  The video showed that the plaintiff slipped and fell on laundry detergent that spilled from a fallen bottle in the supermarket aisle.  When the bottle fell, an assistant manager was at the opposite end of the 72-foot aisle.  When he heard the crash, he ran to the place where the detergent had spilled.  The video showed him standing over the spilled detergent and bending to pick up the bottle nine seconds after it fell.  The plaintiff slipped on the detergent four seconds later.  Thus, 13 seconds elapsed from the time the assistant manager heard the crash until the plaintiff slipped.

As a customer in the store, the plaintiff was a “business invitee.”  A property owner owes a business invitee a duty to warn of concealed dangers that the owner knows or should have known, but that the invitee could not discover through the exercise of reasonable care.  Additionally, the property owner owes its business invitees a duty of ordinary care to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition.

The appeals court found that the spilled detergent was open and obvious, and the defendant therefore did not have a duty to warn the plaintiff of the hazard it presented.  Thus, the issue was whether the supermarket used reasonable care to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition.

In a case involving a foreign substance on the floor, the length of time the substance was there becomes very important.  Courts will generally not hold an owner liable if the substance has not been on the floor for a sufficient amount of time to allow the owner to discover and remedy the hazardous condition.  Here, the appeals court found that the supermarket was not negligent because the detergent had only been on the floor for several seconds.

The appeals court also addressed the supermarket’s operating procedures, which required the assistant manager to immediately block the aisle where the spill occurred.  The court noted that the internal procedure was relevant and admissible, but internal procedures do not establish the standard of care.  The court found that if the assistant manager’s actions were reasonable and showed ordinary care, a failure to follow the internal policy would “not create a heightened duty of care.”

The appeals court reversed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion for judgment in accordance with its motion for a directed verdict and directed the trial court to enter judgment in favor of the defendant.

Although in this case the video showed that the assistant manager was in close proximity to the spilled substance and was able to act quickly, businesses are not always vigilant in cleaning up spilled items.  The plaintiff’s fall occurred within seconds of the spill in this case, but that is not always the case.   If you have been injured after slipping on someone else’s property, a skilled Florida personal injury attorney can help you. Call Anidjar & Levine at (800) 747-3733 to schedule a consultation.

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