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When Can Store Customers Sue Over Injuries Due to Falling Merchandise?

You’re out shopping and you spot an item you want on the top shelf. You reach up and grasp the box, nudging it toward you. Suddenly, an adjacent package falls from the shelf, striking you on the head. You suffer a concussion and a severe neck injury. Can you sue the store? The answer is maybe yes, and maybe no.

Falling merchandise cases yielded some very big damage awards in the 1990s. Big-box stores found that stacking merchandise from the floor to the ceiling helped them save on warehouse costs. It also impressed customers, until too many heavy objects started falling from the high shelves onto unsuspecting shoppers.  Small children were killed by falling merchandise at Home Depot, Sam’s Club and Walmart during the 1990s.

As stated, those cases and others led to huge awards for victims and their families, but they also led to court decisions that clarified the stores’ duty when it comes to stacking merchandise. Under the principles of premises liability law, the store owners had a duty to make their aisles reasonably safe for shoppers. But just what did merchants have to do to be considered reasonable? Depending on the circumstances, a store might have to:

  • Tie down or otherwise restrain items from moving
  • Supply stepladders for customer use
  • Provide readily available assistance from sales staff
  • Refrain from stacking items one on top of another
  • Refrain from stacking items on any shelf above the sightline of the average person

If the store failed in one or more of these areas, a court could find the store owner was unreasonable and award damages to the injured shopper.

However, there is still another factor to consider: other shoppers. If store employees were the only ones to handle the items on the shelves, the store would be responsible for precariously placed items that easily fell from shelves. But other shoppers also handle items and place them back without thinking, often carelessly and dangerously. A store could protect itself from liability for merchandise its shoppers carelessly replace by demonstrating a reasonable routine of restocking shelves.

If you have been injured by falling merchandise, Jakubowski, Robertson, Maffei, Goldsmith & Tartaglia can evaluate your case for free.  Contact our experienced personal injury attorneys for a free consultation.