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Falling Merchandise And Personal Injury. Do Some Big Box Retailers Put Customers At Risk?

Alabama Premises Liability InjuryEarlier this week, I read an article about a lady in another state who suffered a serious head injury from falling merchandise in her local Walmart store. You can read the article at Lawsuit Says TV Fell On Woman. While this lady was a customer, falling merchandise is a danger to both customers and other store employees.

Over the years, we’ve represented numerous retail workers injured by falling merchandise. In many of those cases, we were fighting for work comp benefits due to serious head and upper body injuries. We’ve also represented numerous workers injured because a store required them to climb and retrieve merchandise at heights with little regard for safety. In both situations, merchandise stored or displayed at significant heights presents serious dangers. This presents a huge risk of traumatic brain injury to people. Many customers don’t realize this risk as they shop the aisles at our local stores.

Today, I’ll focus mainly on customers. Is falling merchandise a danger to innocent store customers? Yes, in many big box stores it is a serious issue. In recent years, I’ve prepared a case very similar to the one in the news article I mentioned at the beginning of this post. My case also involved falling merchandise at a Walmart. This Walmart was in Guntersville. My client suffered both traumatic head and shoulder injuries which left her significantly disabled. Because of her injuries, she required shoulder surgery. And, she suffered cognitive impairments from the traumatic brain injury. These accidents are often very serious. What is the problem with falling merchandise at big box retailers?

Is Falling Merchandise A Serious Problem In Big Box Retail Stores?

Is falling merchandise a serious concern? Yes, it is. While no group or agency keeps reliable statistics on the number of people injured by falling merchandise, we have learned information from prior cases and investigations.

Years ago, the Los Angeles Times published an article titled Sky Shelves Can Be Lethal For ShoppersThe article describes a number of serious accidents beginning with a description of an elderly woman named Mary Penturff who was crushed by falling merchandise at a Home Depot. In that situation, the merchandise fell because a store employee tipped it on top of her accidentally with a forklift. In discussing several incidents, the newspaper had the following to say about its investigation:

Penturff’s accident was just one of thousands of injuries and deaths involving shoppers that resulted from falling merchandise in warehouse-style stores, according to a Times examination of court records from around the country.

In the late 1990s, the lawyers in a Colorado falling merchandise case were able to discover some really troubling facts. The Colorado case also involved a Walmart store. In that case, the customers wanted to purchase a power auger. These items were stored in boxes on top of a high shelf. The customers requested help from store employees. A Walmart employee stood on top of a ladder and attempted to remove one of the boxes. He lost his balance, fell and pulled down more boxes as well as a display of ice chests. Both the husband and wife customers were hit by falling merchandise. One of them suffered permanent brain and inner ear injury as well as a spinal disc herniation. During the case, the plaintiffs were able to obtain a report identifying 17,000 falling merchandise incidents causing customer injuries at Wal-Mart stores. That’s 17,000 customer injuries from a single danger at a single company! Granted, Walmart is the biggest retailer. But, the dangers also exist at other big box stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot and Costco. In recent weeks, I’ve written about the dangers at Dollar General that led to huge OSHA fines over a dangerous Alabama store.

After these cases and investigations, many big box retailers changed their policies to provide greater protections from falling merchandise injuries. I began to see much greater precautions by stores trying to move merchandise at heights. While no formal statistics are available, I believe the number of serious falling merchandise injuries significantly decreased.

While the issue improved significantly for many years, we now face a renewed danger. With the coronavirus, many big retailers have seen serious staff shortages. We’ve seen fewer employees present to observe and prevent customer dangers.

I’ll reference again my recent article about Dollar General and some serious OSHA fines involving an Alabama store. According to the OSHA information and other reports, Dollar General has a corporate culture of understaffing stores and creating serious customer dangers. I’ve represented a number of Dollar General employees over the years who were injured in situations which could have been prevented by additional staffing. I represented a lady here in Madison County who fell trying to work with merchandise at heights and suffered disabling RSD (Reflex Sympathy Dystrophy). Dollar General was literally working her constantly and at all positions. It was an impossible situation for anyone to work and thrive long-term. Some stores have always been seriously (and dangerously) understaffed. That puts all the employees and customers at risk of needless personal injury. The current pandemic further magnifies those staffing issues.

Why Does Merchandise Fall?

What issues create a danger of falling merchandise? Here are a few key issues that lead to falling merchandise accidents and injuries:

  • Improperly Stacked Merchandise. We’ve all seen stores where products are dangerously stacked on top of each other. These towers of merchandise look like the slightest touch will send them toppling.
  • Improperly Secured Merchandise. Is that item hanging from the top shelf secure? Or, will the slightest touch send it falling?
  • Shelving That Cannot Support Merchandise Weight. The shelves are not appropriate to support the weight of the products. This leads to potential shelf collapse.
  • Store Fails To Warn Shoppers. If a store knows of dangerous risks, it has a duty to warn customers. Yet, some stores leave customers to navigate serious dangers by themselves with NO warning.
  • Store Fails To Clean Or Restock Items Properly. It’s a busy day. The store is full of customers viewing and handling merchandise. What does the store do? Does the store just leave items scattered for the next customer? This was a major issue in the Dollar General OSHA citations I discussed several weeks ago. A store needs to inspect its aisles and fix any potential dangers. That requires adequate staffing to manage the premises.
  • Store Employees Move Merchandise With Customers Present. This is a frequent occurrence. In my recent Marshall County Walmart case I mentioned earlier, this is exactly what happened. My client was standing in an aisle. She had no idea two Walmart employees were in the next aisle attempting to retrieve merchandise from a top shelf. Those employees accidentally pushed items which then fell on top of my client. It’s an injury that could (and should) have been prevented by the company with just a few precautions. It’s a common problem because some stores fail to monitor for customers who may be in the area.

What Duty Does The Store Owe Customers?

What responsibility does a store have in Alabama to keep you safe? In Alabama, visitors are usually classified in one of three ways:  Trespassers, Licensees (generally social guests), or Invitees (generally business guests). Invitees are owed the highest duty of care. The business must use reasonable care to keep its premises in a safe condition. The business cannot create dangerous hazards for customers. And, the business has a duty to warn customers of dangers it knew or should have known.

Falling merchandise was a significant customer danger at big box retailers across the United States. When courts began holding large retailers accountable for these injuries, many stores acted to improve safety. As many big retailers now return to chronically understaffing their stores and overworking the few employees present, this is a danger that is likely again to increase. The employees who work these stores deserve the help needed to keep themselves safe. The customers who shop these stores deserve an environment where they won’t be suddenly struck by merchandise from above.

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From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm helps people across Alabama following a serious personal injury. If you have questions about an accident or injury, let us know. Our consultations are always free and confidential.

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