Slip-and-fall lawsuits are expected to increase dramatically during the next few years as the U.S. baby-boomer population continues to age, according to a study by commercial insurer and property and casualty company CNA. (Older people are not only more likely to experience a slip-and-fall accident, but their injuries tend to be more significant, the study found.) The good news is that retailers can have a direct impact on the ultimate value and outcome of slip-and-fall accidents both before and after an accident happens, according to premises liability and accident prevention expert Dennis Fetzer.
“The impact before a fall happens has to do with having accident-prevention programs in place. There is zero cost for an accident that never happens,” said Fetzer, who heads up Fetzer Consulting, Boise, Idaho, and is a member of the National Floor Safety Institute board of directors. Fetzer retired as VP corporate liability for a nationwide supermarket chain after 20 years of service where he was responsible for all customer accident claims and litigation.
Entrance mats remain a critical weapon in slip-and-fall prevention.
“Entrance mats reduce up to 91% of dirt and moisture, while also reducing floor maintenance,” Fetzer said.
Caution cones, produce mats (where applicable), and floor sweeps and inspections should also be part of a retailer’s accident-prevention program. Store employees should be instructed as to the importance of filling out the logs accurately and on time.
“Sweep logs are legal documents that can be produced as evidence at trial that the store operator was exercising its duty of reasonable care,” he explained. “They can make the difference between a case you are able to defend in court and a case in which you end up having to make a payment.”
A properly maintained floor surface also figures prominently in reducing accidents.
“The floor should be maintained with NFSI (National Floor Safety Institute) approved cleaners and waxes and products that meet ANSI/NFSI B1101.1 wet slip resistant standards,” Fetzer said. “Using products that meet these standards can dramatically reduce slip-and-fall claims.”
POST ACCIDENT: The way a person is spoken to — what is said and what is not said — immediately after a slip-and-fall accident can influence how the incident turns out.
“I know of instances where customers who had fallen in a store were treated so rudely by store associates that it sent them straight to a lawyer,” Fetzer said. “Always treat injured customers with respect, let them know you care about them, and make them comfortable.”
Store associates and managers should never — for whatever reason — falsify or withhold information from claims management, Fetzer advised.
“All accidents need to be reported to claims management immediately,” he said. “It’s crucially important that everyone be fully forthcoming with a slip-and-fall investigation and answer all questions truthfully. The fact is, ultimately, the truth will come out.
Associates should follow all rules and procedures established by claims management for reporting and investigating accidents.
Stores should have clear-cut procedures in place for what to do when an accident occurs, including referring customer questions (about a fall) to claims management.
“For example, a question like ‘Are my bills going to be taken care of?’ should be referred to claims management,” Fetzer added.