Safeway Cover-Up Leads to $1M Punitive Damages for Slip-and-Fall Injury

SafewayPunitive damages are not available in most lawsuits for negligence. It is therefore headline-grabbing news when the victim of a slip-and-falls persuades a jury to award $1 million in punitive damages.

Punitive damages are not allowed for ordinary acts of negligence. They are intended to punish outrageous misconduct, not simple carelessness. Punitive damages are typically awarded in lawsuits involving assault, fraud, and other acts of intentional misconduct.

In some cases, however, a jury is allowed to award punitive damages in a negligence case. A Portland jury decided that a Safeway supermarket met the standard of outrageousness by engaging in less than forthright conduct.

Slip-and-Fall Law

Every business that holds its premises out to the public has a duty to use reasonable care to keep its premises safe. Businesses are not responsible for every injury a customer experiences on its premises, but it must provide reasonable safeguards against foreseeable injuries.

Supermarkets are a common location of slip-and-fall injuries because liquids so frequently spill in the aisles. Supermarket managers should be aware of the likelihood that floors will become wet and should implement procedures to inspect aisles for spills and to respond to wet floors promptly. A cautious response usually requires an employee to warn customers away from the spill while another employee retrieves a mop and cleans the floor. As an additional precaution, warning markers are typically placed near the mopped area until the floor dries.

If a fall happens immediately after a spill occurs, a supermarket might not be held liable because it had no opportunity to learn of the hazard. If employees ignored a spill, if it occurred in an area where spills are frequent, or if the floor was wet for some time but employees did not discover the problem, the supermarket is more likely to be responsible for injuries sustained by a customer who slips on the wet spot.

The Customer’s Fall

Christopher Armstrong-Stevenson was shopping at a Safeway store in St. Helens when he slipped on liquid laundry detergent that had spilled into the aisle. Armstrong-Stevenson broke his leg and was unable to regain the same active lifestyle he enjoyed before the injury. He spent time at a rehabilitation center and was still engaging in physical therapy sessions at the time of trial.

At age 84, Armstrong-Stevenson was particularly vulnerable to injuries that occur in a fall. The law generally holds businesses responsible for all injuries caused by their negligent conduct, even if the injuries are more severe than a typical customer might sustain under similar circumstances.

The evidence established that a bakery employee told another employee about the spill before Armstrong-Stevenson fell. Store surveillance videos showed the employee looking at the spill before he walked to the back room. The employee passed the area where orange cones are stored but did not deploy them as a warning to customers about the spill. He also passed an intercom but did not report the spill so that another employee could be stationed next to it until it was cleaned up.

The employee filled a bucket with water and returned to the location of the spill with a mop. By that time, however, Armstrong-Stevenson had slipped on the liquid.

Safeway’s Cover-Up

The evidence at Armstrong-Stevenson’s trial provided strong proof of negligence. A business is responsible for the negligence of its employees, and Safeway’s employees were plainly negligent when they failed to take reasonable steps to warn customers about the hazard.

Ordinary negligence, however, does not entitle an injury victim to recover punitive damages. It was Safeway’s response to Armstrong-Stevenson’s fall and his subsequent liability claim that the jury found to be outrageous.

The store manager’s incident report claimed that the spill was small, covering only a 2-inch square area. In fact, the laundry detergent had leaked from a shopper’s cart and left a long trail down the aisle. The same report also claimed that the spill was only on the floor for two minutes, while other evidence in the case suggested that the spill was present for a longer time.

The store manager blamed the shopper who allowed the laundry detergent to leak, claiming that the shopper placed the detergent sideways in the cart and then placed a heavy carton of soda on top of it. Since the manager violated store policy by neglecting to get the shopper’s name, however, there was no way to verify whether that account was accurate.

The manager also produced a statement from a store employee claiming that she completed a routine 30-minute walk-through check of the entire store and that the floors were “clean and dry.” When she was cross-examined during the trial, she admitted that she didn’t actually enter the part of the part of the store where the spill occurred.

Also disturbing was the manager’s decision to destroy certain video evidence prior to the trial. After Armstrong-Stevenson’s lawyers wrote to the store and demanded that all video evidence be preserved, the store manager allowed 18 of 20 video cameras to recycle, wiping out evidence of the time and reason the spill occurred and whether other store employees took note of it.

The Jury’s Decision

Armstrong-Stevenson’s lawyer told the jury that Safeway needed to be taught a lesson. The jury was evidently impressed by the argument that the Safeway store had no spill-response policy to quickly cordon off and clean up spills.

After the trial, jurors commented that Safeway didn’t seem to care whether its customers were hurt while shopping. That conclusion was fortified by the store manager’s testimony that he saw no problem with leaving a spill unguarded while an employee goes to the back of the store to find a mop and bucket.

Safeway’s attorneys did their client no favor by arguing that Armstrong-Stevenson, who had knee-replacement surgery a few months before he fell at Safeway, was just after a large jury award. “These people trying to get money will do anything,” the lawyer told the jury. The jury probably viewed Armstrong-Stevenson as grandfatherly, and likely took “these people” as an attack on the elderly. That was hardly the kind of argument that endears a large corporation to a jury.

The jury awarded Armstrong-Stevenson $102,000 for past and future medical and therapy expenses, $525,000 for his pain and suffering, and $1 million in punitive damages. Unfortunately for Armstrong-Stevenson, Oregon law requires 70% of any punitive damages verdict to be paid to the state, where it is used to fund crime victim’s compensation and courthouse security. While that amounts to a substantial tax on punitive damages, the verdict nevertheless sends a message to supermarkets that they need to protect their customers from wet floors and to be honest about their negligent acts.


(Photo Credit: "Safeway" by Mike Mozart is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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