The High Court has found retail giant Woolworths negligent in failing to remove a greasy potato chip from the floor of one of its shopping centres.
As a result Kathryn Strong, an amputee who walked with the aid of crutches, fell heavily to the floor of a food court area at the Centro Taree Shopping Centre in September 2004.
She suffered a serious spinal injury.
Ms Strong sued Woolworths in the NSW District Court, claiming its negligence caused her injury as the area was inspected more than four hours before the accident.
She was awarded damages of $580,299.
Woolworths took the case to the NSW Court of Appeal, disputing its responsibility for the injury.
That court ruled in favour of Woolworths, finding Ms Strong had failed to prove on the balance of probabilities that its negligence caused her fall.
As the chip was probably deposited at lunchtime it could not be concluded that, had there been a dedicated cleaning of the area every 15 minutes, the accident might not have occurred, the court found.
The High Court today ruled the NSW Court of Appeal finding was wrong.
In a majority decision, four of the court’s judges said reasonable care required inspection and removal of slipping hazards at intervals not greater than 20 minutes in the sidewalk sales area, which was next to the food court.
On the balance of probabilities, Ms Strong would not have fallen but for the negligence of Woolworths.
The decision restores the original verdict from the NSW District Court.
Commenting on the decision, Majed Issa, a personal injury lawyer with Maurice Blackburn, said the High Court decision had wide-reaching implications for people injured in public places who under the law must show that their injury was caused by negligence of a third party.
“In this case the High Court agreed that shopping centres and stores should have in place a reasonable inspection and cleaning system that would detect and remove hazards that could cause injury within a reasonable timeframe.” Mr Issa said.
In this case, the court determined that a hazard should be identified and removed if it has existed for at least 20 minutes or longer.
“This obligation also exists if stores have merchandise outside their own physical store, especially in an area where food and drinks are being consumed.”
Mr Issa said Ms Strong, who was injured almost eight years ago, would have spent enormous sums of money in medical and rehabilitation costs.
“Injuries in shopping centres are more common than you would imagine and there is a big cost to the community and individuals when people are injured through no fault of their own” he said.
(Source: SMH, March 7, 2012, AAP & Louise Hall)
About Rushmore Forensic
Andrew Firth is a director of Rushmore Group. He has conducted numerous investigations and other forensic accounting engagements in Australia, Singapore, the UK, Thailand, Hong Kong, Vanuatu, and the USA.
He specialises in economic loss calculations, personal injury compensation and other forensic accounting services for commercial disputes. He is a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants and has appeared as an Expert Witness in numerous jurisdictions.