Slip and Fall Accidents in Stores and Businesses

A successful slip and fall claim against any business usually means proving that the company (or one of its employees) was negligent.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

If you slip and fall in a store or any other kind of business, here's what you need to know at the outset:

  • Any business that opens it doors to customers must take steps to keep the property in reasonably safe condition, whether it's a nationwide chain or a local small business.
  • A successful slip and fall claim against a store or business requires showing that someone (the store owner, the property owner, an employee, or some combination of these) was negligent, and that the negligence caused the customer's injury.
  • When a customer is injured, the store or business's general liability or commercial liability insurance policy will typically cover the incident, but a lawsuit is always possible.

A Business's Duty to Maintain Safe Premises

Under a legal theory called "premises liability," stores and other businesses have a duty to keep their property (the "premises" in the language of the law) reasonably safe for customers and visitors.

In a nutshell, and in the context of a potential slip and fall accident, that usually means that the store owner and/or the property owner can be held liable for injuries if:

  • they knew (or should have known, based on the circumstances) that there was some type of hazard or unsafe condition on the premises, and
  • they failed to take proper steps to remove the danger or minimize potential harm to visitors/customers.

Let's take a deeper dive into this liability issue.

Slip and Fall Liability Requires Negligence and Actual Harm

After a slip and fall injury, liability on the part of a store or business (and/or the owner of the property) usually only comes into play if someone was negligent in connection with the accident. Put another way, the "premises liability" we discussed above is only triggered when someone did something (or failed to do something) that created the hazard, or that allowed the hazard to remain for an unreasonable amount of time.

Get the basics on negligence, the legal duty of "reasonable care," and fault for an injury.

Common Causes of Store/Business Slip and Fall Accidents

Any time there's an unexpected obstacle or hazard in a customer or visitor's path, a slip (or trip) and fall accident can happen in a store or other business. Here are some common examples:

  • water, a food product, a cleaning product, or another substance ends up on the floor
  • merchandise, furniture, equipment, tools, wires, or anything else falls or is left on the floor in an area where customers/visitors walk
  • torn carpet, broken tiles, buckling cement, and other floor hazards develop over time
  • insufficient or non-functioning lighting leads to poor visibility, and
  • damaged stairsteps or broken handrails.

The above-listed examples illustrate when a store or business might be liable for a slip and fall that occurs on the premises. But keep in mind that just because you fall on a business owner's property, that doesn't automatically mean that you have a valid slip and fall claim against the business, or anyone else.

Let's look at a few examples of when you probably don't have a viable slip and fall claim against a store or business:

  • You fell and were injured, but there's no evidence of negligence on the part of the store, the property owner, or anyone else.
  • You fell and were injured, but you bear most or all of the blame for what happened (you were in a cordoned-off area or you ignored posted and prominent warning signs, for example). Learn more about how an injured person's own negligence affects a slip and fall case.
  • You fell, and evidence indicates the store was negligent, but you didn't suffer any injuries.

Get the basics on proving fault after a slip and fall.

Who Can You Sue for a Store/Business Slip and Fall?

The answer here often depends on the nature of the slip and fall accident, and who might have been negligent. Of course, if the business/store owner also owns the property where the accident occurred, the only potential defendant would be the store owner. But many business owners lease their property, so you might also have a claim against the landlord/property owner.

Sue the Landlord or Sue the Store Owner?

If you slip (or trip) and fall because of some structural or hidden safety issue related to the property, your claim would likely be against the landlord/property owner, especially if the store or business had no way of knowing about the problem. An example would be water damage that is allowed to weaken the floor of a store over time, until a customer's foot falls through the floor tile. Learn more about landlord liability for a slip and fall injury.

But if your injury occurs because of something that the business owner did (or failed to do), then your claim would likely be against the business owner, whether that's an individual, a corporation, or some other ownership entity. An example would be a slip and fall that happens on a part of the floor that a store employee has just mopped, and the employee forgot to follow store safety protocol and place cones or other warning signs to alert customers of the temporary hazard.

Regardless of the scenario that led to your injuries, the success of your slip and fall case will hinge on whether you can establish that your injuries were the result of someone's negligence.

Was There Negligence?

Let's look at a hypothetical case in which a customer slipped and fell in a grocery store aisle. The customer claims that there was a substance on the floor that made the surface unusually slippery, and before they knew it they were on their back, with significant pain in their hip and lower back. So how does the customer go about proving that the condition of the floor was the result of someone's negligence?

The key liability questions that come up most often in a slippery floor case are:

  • Was the floor unreasonably slippery?
  • Why was the floor slippery?
  • If a foreign substance made the floor slippery, how long had that substance been on the floor before you slipped?
  • Was there a warning about the slippery condition?
  • Did the customer know (or should they have known, based on the circumstances) that the floor might be slippery?
  • Did the store owner or property owner know (or should they have known) that the floor was unreasonably slippery?

Let's look at a couple of these issues in more detail.

Why Was the Floor Slippery?

In order to have a reasonable chance at getting a favorable outcome, the customer in this example would ideally get some idea of why the floor was slippery before they leave the premises after the accident. Without a viable hypothesis as to the cause of the fall, it's going to be very hard to win the case.

If, for example, you tell the store manager right after the accident that you don't know why you slipped, the jury is very unlikely to believe you six months later when, after consulting with your lawyer, you testify that you slipped on a puddle of orange juice.

How Long Had the Substance Been on the Floor?

Continuing on with the slippery floor example, even if the customer is able to establish the nature of the substance that was on the floor, they'll still need to prove that the store owner knew or should reasonably have known about the dangerous condition of the floor. The longer the slippery condition had been present, the more likely it is that you can prove that the defendant knew or should have known about it—and remedied the problem. Let's continue on with the "puddle of orange juice" example.

If a shopper in a supermarket drops a quart of orange juice on the floor, and you slip on it twenty seconds later, the supermarket might be able to avoid liability by arguing that it had no reasonable opportunity to inspect the aisles, learn of the hazard, and take appropriate steps to clean it. But if the puddle of orange juice had been on the floor for half an hour, and you can prove it (through your own testimony and through witnesses) you might have a claim against the supermarket.

Was There a Warning About the Slippery Condition?

Sometimes slippery conditions are unavoidable. For example, a store owner might wax the floors periodically, a reasonable thing to do. But floor wax is slippery. So, a "reasonableness" standard—which governs most negligence cases—would require that employees cordon off the area of the floor that's being waxed, or at the very least put up a sign warning of a slippery floor. Putting up a warning sign does not automatically absolve the defendant of liability, but it certainly helps. On the other hand, failure to post any warning or take other precautions to let customers know of a slippery floor is fairly good evidence of negligence.

How Do I Hold a Store or Business Liable for a Slip and Fall?

So far we've covered a lot of ground on how stores and other businesses can be legally responsible for injuries resulting from a slip and fall. But how does an injured customer or visitor go about making a claim for compensation against those at fault? There are usually two main options:

  • filing an insurance claim with the business owner's commercial liability or general liability insurance policy; a claim like this might result in a settlement that is meant to compensate you for your injuries, lost income, pain and suffering, and other losses (called "damages" in the language of the law) and/or
  • filing a personal injury lawsuit against the business owner in court, which, in the rare event that the case goes all the way to trial, would result in a judgment for the injured person (the plaintiff), and an order that the business owner (as defendant) pay the plaintiff money.

Keep in mind that the business owner's liability insurer would be on the financial hook for any kind of settlement, and any kind of court judgment, up to policy coverage limits. And these two options aren't mutually exclusive. You might file an insurance claim, and find that you need to take the matter to court and file a lawsuit. And any slip and fall lawsuit, once filed, can still result in an out of court settlement at any point. Get details on the typical slip and fall case timeline.

Business/Store Slip and Fall Settlement Value

Every slip and fall case is unique, so it's difficult to offer any solid information on valuation without knowing about key factors like:

  • the circumstances of the slip and fall accident
  • the clarity of the fault issue (does the store or business admit liability, or are they arguing that they're not at fault?)
  • the nature and extent of your injuries, and the effect of those injuries on your life, including your ability to make a living
  • your physical and mental pain and suffering resulting from your slip and fall injuries, and your necessary medical treatment, and
  • the availability of insurance coverage to compensate you for your injuries and related losses.

Getting Help After a Slip and Fall Accident

It's not always a good idea to represent yourself in a personal injury claim, but if you weren't hurt all that badly after a slip and fall in a store or other business, and the company's insurer offers you a settlement that you can live with, you probably don't need to get an attorney involved.

But if the store or business is part of a nationwide chain, with high-paid attorneys to fight injury claims like yours, having a lawyer on your side if a necessity. That's especially true when your injuries are serious, and the store/business or its insurer is refusing to accept liability for the accident.

Use the features on this page to connect with a personal injury attorney near you, or learn more about how to find the right personal injury lawyer for you and your case.

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