In cases like this, it can be unclear who is responsible for the dangerous conditions that led to the accident. In order to determine whether there was a single party or several entities liable for the hazardous condition to exist in the store, you have to start at the beginning of the story.
As a retail safety expert, I know that the seemingly obvious party is not necessarily the right party to take action against. To avoid excessive costs, wasted time, and, worst of all, an adverse jury decision, it is essential to determine where the fault for the accident ultimately falls. In my years of designing safe retail environments and displays, it has always been necessary to anticipate all of the factors that can contribute to an accident or failure.
In reviewing accidents at the store level, I have found that there is an evolution from the time ground is broken on a new store up to the time an accident occurs; during which multiple entities contribute to the creation of an unsafe condition in the store. If every company and individual followed protocol at all times, beginning with the store’s construction and continuing through the store’s day-to-day operation, then an accident might be accurately attributed to customer neglect. All too often, however, faulty work, inaccurate specifications, lack of maintenance, inconsistent staff compliance to company protocol, and procedures that do not follow industry standard of care result in customer accidents. This chain of safety is only as strong as the weakest link. Any issue with the design, construction or administration of the store has the potential to cause an accident.
Photo credit: Palm Beach County Fire Rescue
To understand the factors that could lead to an accident, we need to review each link in this chain. We will evaluate the responsibilities that each entity has in contributing to and maintaining a safe store environment.
Best Fixture Installation Practice
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; a simple law of physics that applies to almost every retail safety accident. The gondola fixtures at the Party City store in Florida had a force on them; the weight of the merchandise they held. This was offset by anchoring the shelves into the wall. At some point, there was a failure in making sure that this balance was maintained, leading to the accident. In my experience working as a retail expert witness assisting attorneys with liability issues for accidents at a store level, there are four parties that need to be examined in order to verify that they performed all of the industry standard practices to ensure customer safety.
- The retailer needs to issue contract drawings for a new store. This should include the display manufacturers warnings and installation instructions as part of their construction documentation.
- Construction details should be provided to show the proper method of installing wall fasteners.
- The retailer should inspect the installation at the time it is performed to ensure it is done correctly.
- Overloading gondola shelves must be avoided. Store staff must have access to a manual that documents acceptable shelf loading and product presentation standards.
- In cases where an accident has already occurred, like the Party City incident, an immediate audit needs to be performed to determine what caused the accident. After the audit has been performed all stores must be made aware of its findings to eliminate the possibility of repeating the problem.
- In a chain store operation, it is critical to determine if this condition was repeated in other locations. As well as for management to make immediate plans to correct the problem. Once the cause of the accident is determined, the retailer must contact their stores with similar conditions. They must ensure they have their displays inspected and repaired properly.
- The manufacturer needs to test the quality and strength of their product. They also need to make sure that the display meets industry standards. Should a defect be discovered, an immediate recall must take place, or a corrective notice must be sent to all store chains where that product is in service.
- The manufacturer should include adequate warnings on product limitations and proper installation instruction with all product shipments.
Display Installation Company
- It is critical that the display installation company properly fastened any wall gondola shelving to the wall. Fastening a wall gondola to a structural wall is a standard operating procedure. Additionally, the method in which this is done is vital for store safety.
- Any concern that the blocking in the walls or studs were not properly prepared must be addressed immediately. As this can lead to the connection failing.
- Staff members must follow the construction drawing or installation drawing specifications when installing the shelving.
- The general contractor must follow the construction drawings that call for the correct method of display fastening. Not only to the wall but also to the floor when requested.
- The general contractor must also make sure that a representative from the retailer inspects the blocking in the wall prior to closing off the wall with sheet rock.
- Any concerns about specification details, or alternative methods for securing the displays must be reported to the retailer.
- Corrective measures need to be in place as soon as possible should any issues be discovered with the design specifications or construction.
According to an installer who worked on the Party City displays, the collapse began when the supporting wall securing the gondolas failed. The problem could have been a result of overloading the shelving. However this seems somewhat unlikely in a party store, where the majority of the goods are made of lightweight paper.
Regardless, safety within a retail store is a black and white issue for retailers. Either the shopping environment they’ve created for customers is safe, or it isn’t. Many retailers that care about customer safety make sure that the training of store staff is adequate. Also that daily inspection of the premises is performed to identify potential hazards. Most importantly, they make sure that their policies and procedures are vigorously enforced and followed to the letter.
Unfortunately, many retailers take a lax approach to customer safety and refuse to correct known issues until an accident occurs. Thus preferring to be reactive instead of proactive. It is true that the retailer that owns the store in which the accident occurred is the first party on the firing line. For attorneys, prior to taking action on a retail safety case, it is vital to identify any other parties that likely failed to provide a safe condition for shoppers at any stage in the “chain of safety,” and to include them in the lawsuit as well.