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Who is responsible for slips, trips and falls in stores?

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Anyone can trip on a step or slip on a wet floor. But if falls happen in stores, the matter can sometimes end up in the hands of courts, which have to determine whether the accident was due to inadequate management of the facility or carelessness on the part of the customer.

With some courts ordering facilities to pay compensation, stressing the increasing importance of accessibility in Japanese society, experts say facility operators need to focus more on implementing “barrier-free” measures.

If a customer falls down in a store restroom, can the store be held liable?

Such an accident occurred in January 2018, when a 67-year-old customer at a cell phone store in Kanagawa Prefecture tripped on a step in the store’s restroom and fractured her hip when she fell. The woman spent about a month in the hospital.

The woman sought about ¥8.6 million in compensation to cover medical fees and emotional distress but the company denied responsibility, arguing there had not been a single fall in the 18 months since the store opened and the step was easily noticeable.

In January, the Yokohama District Court ruled that the operator was liable for failing to warn customers about the step and ordered the store operator to pay the woman about ¥2.3 million. “It is widely recognized in society that steps can be dangerous for elderly people,” the court stated in its ruling.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry urges facilities to ensure public restrooms have step-free access under the Barrier-Free Law, which was enacted to ensure the safety of elderly people and others.

The store operator filed an appeal in the Tokyo High Court, but the case was settled in June with the company paying ¥2 million in compensation.

“We deeply regret any inconvenience caused to the customer,” said an official of the company, which now posts signs in store restrooms and warns elderly customers about potential hazards.

In some cases, negligence by store operators has led to huge compensation claims.

The Tokyo District Court ordered a supermarket operator to pay about ¥21.8 million in damages in July 2021, after a customer slipped on the wet floor at one of its outlets in Kanagawa Prefecture and broke his elbow. The ruling has been finalized.

It was determined that the floor around the lettuce display had not been adequately wiped dry. The court ruled that the store would have been able to expect that the floor around the display would get wet as the lettuce was rinsed in water.

The man ran his own company and the court took into account the impact on his business when deciding the compensation amount.

The Tokyo District Court ordered another supermarket operator to pay about ¥600,000 in compensation in December 2020 in a lawsuit brought by a customer who injured a knee when he slipped on tempura at the checkout.

The district court ruled that the operator “should have thoroughly checked the safety of the area around the checkout counter.” However, the Tokyo High Court overturned the district court’s decision in August 2021, ruling that the customer had a clear view of the floor in front of the checkout and that it was not difficult for customers to avoid objects that had fallen on the floor.

The ruling was finalized by the Supreme Court.

“The deciding factor [in such cases] is whether the facility could have foreseen the cause of the accident and the extent to which it took measures to prevent an accident,” lawyer Koichiro Mochizuki said.

“In Japan’s greying society, accessibility is becoming more important and higher safety standards are required. When hazards are identified, facility operators should eliminate the problem or display warnings, because courts are more likely to rule that facilities are liable for accidents such as slips and falls than in the past.”