Kathryn Strong, an amputee on crutches, was walking in the sidewalk sales area of a Woolworths in Australia when one of her crutches slipped on a french fry. She then fell to the ground and suffered a serious spinal injury. She sued Woolworths and lost. She appealed and lost. Then it went to the Australian High Court and she won a half-million dollars.
Why Did She Win?
In testimony, the High Court said reasonable care required inspection and removal of slipping hazards at intervals not greater than 20 minutes. When asked, Woolworths said they had not inspected the area since the store opened that day. The store was open 4.5 hours before Strong fell.
Woolworths lost this case, because Strong fell due to the infrequent and inadequate cleaning systems employed by the store. This is significant, because people who sue usually have to prove that the person or company they are suing for negligence caused the problem. In this case, Woolworths did not have a clear cleaning and inspection process in place and did not provide reasonable care.
Another case: Mrs. Landrum was visiting her mother in a hospital room in the Methodist Medical Center of Oak Ridge in Tennessee. She left the room, walked past the nurse's station to the elevators, and exited the building. She then returned along the same route. She slipped and fell in a puddle of water near the floor's nurse's station, suffered a fractured kneecap, and required surgery. She filed a negligence suit. She lost. She appealed and lost.
Why Did She Lose?
In this incident, Mrs. Landrum walked on the same spot, leaving and returning within 15 minutes. In this case, the court decided hospital staff didn't have enough time to realize there was a puddle on the floor and take action to clean it up.
But what would have happened if Mrs. Landrum came back in 45 minutes? Would the hospital be able to pull out a published cleaning and maintenance manual? Would there be a log of when inspections were done and if any spill cleanup was conducted? Depending on the answers, the results may have turned out differently.
For both Woolworths and Methodist Medical Center, conducting a walkway audit right after the incidents would have helped managers evaluate the incident, fix any issues, and prepare for potential litigation.
Here are three action items to reduce the risks and costs of incidents like these:
- Implement a process. Have a clear and defined floor cleaning and maintenance process that includes frequent inspection and spill cleanup procedures. Take the facility into consideration. For example, a retailer with a food court has a higher risk of contaminants on the floor and a lot of pedestrians.
- Consult the experts. Have a walkway safety professional provide walkway management services during the design, plan, and build phases to help select walkway materials and develop floor cleaning and maintenance processes focused on reducing slips, trips, and falls.
- Conduct an audit. Conduct walkway audits to evaluate your floor cleaning and maintenance processes in addition to performance. Be sure to conduct these as soon as possible after a slip, trip, and fall incident. The audit provides information on the state of your walkway management program. If necessary, any issues can be immediately rectified. If litigation results from the incident, you have an evaluation of your walkway management plan.
Don't be the next company that pays a half-million dollars for a french fry. Proactively reduce your risk by using a qualified walkway auditor as either an internal or external resource.