Massachusetts SJC Expands Retail Store Liability for Slip & Fall Injuries

Slip & fall accidents can be a lot more serious than many people think. No, scraped palms and knees don’t make up the bulk of the injuries that result from these events:  As a Boston slip & fall attorney, I can assure people:  Broken limbs, herniated spinal discs and concussions are most often the types of injuries that result from these events.  When people around age 70 or older are the victims, broken bones become even more common.  A good deal of my injury law practice involves representing these types of injury victims, and I’ve seen more serious injuries result from these types of events than I can discuss here.

So it was very positive news when a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) case was recently decided, which basically expanded the liability of retail business operators for slip and fall injuries.  This type of case falls under an area of law known as “Premises Liability.” (There’s an entire section on Premises Liability at our website, which you can get to by clicking on the “Website” tab, above.)  Explaining on a technical, legal level precisely why this decision expanded liability of retail stores for these types of injuries, would likely take a long time here and probably cause you to doze off. (I understand – for non-lawyers, these court decisions are pretty dry.)  But – very briefly – I’ll try to explain the legal reasons for this decision:

If someone suffers a slip and fall injury at a Massachusetts retail store and wishes to sue the store owner for negligence, for many, many years that person (the plaintiff) has had to overcome and satisfy several legal elements for this type of suit at the very beginning of their case, or the case would likely be dismissed (thrown out of court.) Why? At the beginning of the case, the store’s attorneys would file what is known as a “Motion for Summary Judgment,” which translated to English means that if the plaintiff in the case doesn’t satisfy certain basic legal elements of the case, the judge has to dismiss the case before it ever gets to a jury.

Those legal elements that the plaintiff had to show, in order to prevent their case from being thrown out of court before it ever got to trial, fell under what is called the “traditional tort theory of premises liability.”  Under the traditional theory of premises liability, when someone tripped or slipped and suffered injury at a retail store due to a foreign object or substance being temporarily on the premises, the plaintiff had to prove that the store had actual or constructive knowledge of the presence of the object or substance (or defect) on the premises.  That is, that the store actually knew (for some examples) that a grape was temporarily on the floor, or perhaps water or some type of slippery substance, which created an unreasonable risk of injury to patrons in the store.  If a plaintiff could not demonstrate that the store had actual notice that the dangerous condition existed, a plaintiff could still show “constructive notice” if he or she could show that the dangerous condition existed for an unreasonably long enough period of time that the store management “should have” known about the dangerous condition.

These initial requirements were difficult for many injured plaintiffs to satisfy, and for many years the result was that many of these type of cases never made it to a jury, because the defense would succeed in filing the “Summary Judgement” motions I referred to above.

Thankfully, however, a new theory of liability developed in recent years, and the SJC has just expanded that liability to apply to retail store operators.  I’ll discuss more of this, in my next post on this subject, later this week.  Since these types of Massachusetts retail store injuries are very common, I’d suggest keeping an eye on this blog.