Just last week the High Court awarded a person $580,000 in damages for personal injuries sustained when they slipped on a greasy potato chip in the Centro Taree Shopping Centre in 2004. The plaintiff, who is an amputee and walks with the assistance of crutches, slipped on the chip whilst in the shopping centre’s food court. It was found that inspection and cleaning of this area was the responsibility of Woolworths and that Woolworth’s owed a duty of care to users of that space. At first instance, the case was decided in favour of the plaintiff. The District Court held that Woolworth’s was negligent in failing to inspect the area sufficiently regularly. It was found that the last inspection of the food court prior to the accident occurred more than four hours before. The conclusion was reached that on the balance of probabilities, the plaintiff would not have been injured had Woolworth’s implemented a more frequent cleaning schedule.

Woolworth’s successfully appealed the claim in the NSW Court of Appeal but the recent High Court judgment restored the District Court’s original verdict. A majority of the High Court held that in order to exercise reasonable care to the extent required by its legal duty, Woolworth’s needed to insure that the inspection of and removal of hazards from the sidewalk sales area bordering the food court takes place no less than every 20 minutes.

Personal injury lawyer with Maurice Blackburn, Majed Issa summarised the court’s findings as to the scope of the duty of the duty of care involved as follows:

"In this case the High Court agreed that shopping centres and stores should have in place a reasonable inspection and cleaning system that would detect and remove hazards that could cause injury within a reasonable timeframe."

The risk of injury from a slip, trip or fall is one of which every public venue needs to be aware. As this case demonstrates, compensating an individual injured through negligence can be extremely costly. The timely inspection and cleaning of floor surfaces to remove any potential slip and trip hazards is legally required of venue occupiers and managers in exercising their duty of care to the members of the public.

How frequently such procedures should occur however depends upon the use of the space concerned.  Food courts generally attract a constant flow of pedestrian activity. Food and beverage spillage additionally increases the risk of a slip and trip accident. Consequently, food courts and other similar public spaces require continuous inspection and cleaning to control the risk.