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Owners might not be liable for a customer's slip and fall

Owning a business requires optimism in the face of risks. Retail spaces host every kind of person in all states of attention in every weather New Jersey gets. Injuries happen.

When a customer is injured in your business, are you always liable for medical bills, lost wages, and damages? Does being in business in New Jersey mean a life of perpetual liability?

Two hypothetical injuries

Imagine that Alan and Bob each have a furniture shop on Main Street. Two accidents occur, one in Alan’s shop and one in Bob’s.

In Alan’s shop, Alice wandered into a model living-room display area on the showroom floor and struck her forearm against a chair. The display had been arranged the night before.

The bump caused a bruise, and Beth’s arm was uncomfortable for the next two days as she typed at work.

Meanwhile, in Bob’s shop, Beth fell on slippery marble steps. No warnings were posted because the stairwell was too dark for reading. Beth heard a store clerk say “not again” as he dialed 911.

Beth broke two ankle bones and her doctor believes Beth can return to her job as a fitness instructor in six months.

You may already guess that Bob probably will be held liable for the accident in this shop, while Alan probably will not.

There’s no precise method of calculating whether and to what extent a business will be held responsible. But let’s consider some of the variables.

Carelessness and comparative negligence

Alice was inconvenienced but to some extent, people are obliged to reasonably anticipate and prevent their own injuries. Alice had fair warning, effectively, since the objects were brightly displayed for all to see.

Fitness instructor Beth suffered a serious injury with lasting consequences for her. Her dangers were hidden by darkness and slipperiness is often hard to judge even in the best of circumstances.

If Bob negligently maintained an unreasonable risk, Bob will probably be held liable.

Reasonable opportunity and obligation to correct

Alan’s display was only in place a few hours. He had little opportunity to correct any dangers or obligation to anticipate a danger to Alice.

Bob probably should have known the stairwell was too dark and the stairs were too slippery. If other injuries had occurred there, employees and medical, insurance, or municipal records may show that Bob was negligent in not correcting known and dangerous conditions.

It’s also possible that Bob’s stairwell violated city building codes. If so, this would likely bolster Beth’s case that Bob had reason, opportunity, and an obligation to reduce the risks before Beth arrived.

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