This case involves a fifty-seven-year-old man who was shopping with his wife at a self-service retail store. The man and his wife were shopping for a folding chair for the man’s wife, who was several months pregnant. The folding chairs were located in the sporting goods section of the store and were on a lower level of the shelving. After the man’s wife tried one of the chairs and found it unacceptable, the man bent over to put it back on the shelf. While he was bending over, two aluminum folding camp tables in boxes fell suddenly from a higher shelf onto his back and neck and knocked him to the floor. Neither the man nor his wife had noticed the boxes before they fell. There were no restraining devices securing the boxes to the shelf. The boxes that fell on the man’s back and neck each weighed about thirty-seven-pounds. The boxes had been stacked standing up on end, almost vertically but leaning slightly against the solid rear portion of the shelf. The man suffered severe damage to his spinal cord that left him paralyzed from the neck down. The man was no longer able to perform his job that involved manual labor, and had to pay extensive medical bills for neuromuscular and functional electrical stimulation in order to gain back some modicum of muscle control. Consequently, his ability to enjoy his personal and family life was greatly impacted.
Question(s) For Expert Witness
- Does a self-service retail store have a duty to protect customers from injuries caused by falling merchandise?
Expert Witness Response
In the retail business, the “high stacking” of merchandise in self-service stores has become very common. Retail stores stack merchandise in high places because by creating stores that resemble mini-warehouses and stacking goods as high as 18 feet, the stores virtually eliminate warehouse costs and save millions of dollars. Retail stores have a duty to use reasonable care in placing goods on the store shelves. Merchandise must not be stacked or placed at such heights, widths, depths, or in such locations which would make it susceptible to falling. One of the factors that stores must take into consideration when establishing and maintaining a display is the fact that the merchandise is going to be inspected by customers. A merchandise display constructed so that an inspection by a customer might cause the merchandise to fall, is a negligently constructed display. In this case, the store was probably negligent in stacking the boxes standing up, almost vertically, with no restrains on the shelf. Because the tables probably had large dimensions and substantial weight, it was foreseeable that placing them on end on a high shelf could lead to a dangerous situation if they were inspected or moved slightly by a customer. Since the store was probably aware that customers usually bumped shelves as they reached for merchandise and that customers might inadvertently pull merchandise down onto themselves when reaching for it, the store should have used a restraining bar in front of the display to secure the tables in this case.