You Could Be Liable if Your Employee Improperly Cleans Up After a Spill in a Grocery Store

The Fourth Circuit reversed a trial judge’s decision to let a wine distributor off the hook for liability in a slip fall.  The opinion can be found here.  It is notable because it’s a fact patter that is fairly common and provides some discussion topics for employees who may find themselves in a similar situation, especially if you self-distribute.

The sales representative for the wine distributor was stocking shelves at a supermarket when he accidentally dropped a bottle of wine, spilling its contents in an aisle of the grocery store. He did several things to deal with the spill.

  • First, he blocked off one side of the spill area.
  • Then he retrieved a broom and dustpan, picked up the larger pieces of glass by hand, and swept the area with the broom.
  • Subsequently, he mopped the area and put up a yellow warning cone. The cone was approximately two-and-a-half feet tall and two feet wide.

Nearly six minutes after he finished, a lady entered the wine aisle. After browsing the wine selection at the store, she slipped and fell in the spill area and was injured. She filed a lawsuit against the grocery store and the distributor.  The court held a trial, but before a ruling, the judge granted the distributor’s motion finding that the sales rep did everything he could to clean up the spill and couldn’t have done anything more.

The plaintiff appealed the decision arguing that there was enough evidence presented at trial from which the jury could have found that the wine distributor, through its employee, breached its duty in the following ways:

  • Mopping an area much larger than the spill area,
  • Failing to dry the area after mopping,
  • Using a slippery hand-sanitizer-like substance to clean the floor,
  • Using only a cone to mark the area, and
  • Placing the warning cone in an unreasonable place.

The appellate court agreed and sent the case back for a new trial.  While the ruling seems like a fairly pointless slip and fall decision, it does make it clear that there are a few protocols that should probably be written up in an employee manual that include not just what the employee did here, but also the things the plaintiff claims he should have done to better clean up the spill (hand sanitizer aside).