Tacoma, WA Business Law Attorneys Discuss Premises Liability for Self-Service Business Owners
It sometimes surprises Washington State residents when they hear that a business owner is not always liable for an injury sustained by a customer on the business owner’s premises. Indeed, the general rule is that business owners are liable only if they have actual or constructive notice of the hazard that produced the injury.
As with any legal rule, however, there are exceptions. One such exception applies when the nature of the business or its operations make the existence of unsafe conditions reasonably foreseeable. A common example of this exception is a self-service operation, where customers are required to handle the goods and materials that they are about to purchase. A state appellate court discussed the legal issues in a recent case [Craig v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.] involving a customer who was bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake as he shopped in the outdoor garden area of a Clarkston, Washington Wal-Mart.
The Wal-Mart Store Was “Statistically Safe”
Wal-Mart contended that it had no liability since it had no reason to be aware of the snake’s presence. It produced evidence that during the roughly three year period between the opening of the store and the rattlesnake bite, it had served more than 4 million customers and had never had an incident involving a snake. It also described various methods it used to decrease the risk of dangerous incidents, such as routinely sweeping and checking the garden center area and hiring a company to provide monthly pest control. The plaintiff, Mr. Craig, presented expert evidence that rattlesnakes likely lived in and around the undeveloped lots that were adjacent to the Wal-Mart property.
The Self-Service Exception Applied
Mr. Craig argued that the self-service exception applied, that Wal-Mart used a self-service method of operation, and that its decision to utilize such a method of operation “in rattlesnake country” created the unsafe condition.
The appellate court agreed with Mr. Craig. The court said, “Rattlesnakes wander.” Wal-Mart’s choice to locate an outdoor garden center in its parking lot and adjacent to undeveloped land created a reasonably foreseeable hazard. Further, it was reasonably foreseeable that a customer might be bitten by a rattlesnake while retrieving merchandise. This risk was inherent, the court indicated, during the entire spring and summer when Wal-Mart utilizes its outdoor garden center. Mr. Craig might not prevail in his case, but he should at least be allowed to present it to a jury.
Business Owner Takeaways
What should self-service businesses do, in light of the Wal-Mart case? Here are a few pointers:
- Secure business liability insurance, if you do not currently have it.
- Make regular inspections of your business premises, being careful to look for dangerous circumstances. The Wal-Mart case isn’t just about rattlesnakes. Be on the lookout for sharp objects, nooks and crevices where spiders might hide, and for any evidence of rodent infestation.
- Retain a pest control service.
Blado Kiger Bolan, P.S. – Experienced Business Attorneys
Premises liability issues are just one challenge facing Washington State businesses. Today’s businesses must maneuver within a regulatory framework that is often confusing. Disputes arise with vendors, customers, landlords, tenants, and others. Having a strong, experienced group of business law attorneys in your corner can make all the difference.
For more than 30 years now, the business lawyers at Blado Kiger Bolan, P.S. have provided businesses with quality legal services throughout the Pacific Northwest. We pride ourselves on designing the simplest, most effective solution for your legal issue. We also have the experience and skill to represent your interests aggressively in court. For assistance with any business law issue, contact us on the web, or call our office at 253-272-2997.