When Can a Shop Be Sued for Damages If a Customer Falls?

“… it is by now long established in our law that the owner or other person or entity in control of a shopping mall has a legal duty to take reasonable steps to ensure that its premises are ‘reasonably safe’ for those members of the public who might frequent them … What such steps may be will depend on the circumstances.” (Extract from judgment below)

The Festive Season is once more upon us, cueing shops, shopping centres and malls packed with ever-growing crowds of shoppers.

What happens if you fall while shopping and hurt yourself? Our law reports are full of cases where shops are sued for damages following “slips” and “trips”, and a recent High Court case confirms once again that as a general rule shops and malls are liable to keep their visitors from harm.

A broken elbow from a slip on a wet mall floor
  • A shopper visited a mall to draw money from an ATM on a rainy day. Rain carried into the mall by other shoppers on their rain jackets, umbrellas and shoes had left the floor wet and slippery, and she saw a yellow ‘wet floor’ warning sign on the tiled floor.
  • 14 metres from the mall entrance her feet suddenly gave way from under her and she fell, extending her right arm to break her fall and shield the baby she was carrying. She was left with a fractured elbow.
  • She successfully sued both the mall’s owner and its management company for damages, a “Full Bench” of the High Court ordering the two companies to pay “jointly and severally” whatever damages she can prove.
  • “Thus, in summary” held the Court, “the owner or person or entity in control of a mall will only potentially be liable for harm or danger which would have been foreseeable to the hypothetical reasonable man in its position, and is obliged to take no more than reasonable steps to guard against such harm occurring … Whether the steps that were taken in a particular case are to be regarded as reasonable or not depends upon a consideration of all the facts and circumstances, and merely because harm which was foreseeable did eventuate does not mean that the steps which were taken to avoid it were necessarily unreasonable. Ultimately the inquiry involves a value judgement on the part of the Court.”
  • The Court found that the “legal duty to take reasonable steps to safeguard the [shopper] from harm that day … was one which fell primarily and squarely” on the owner and its management company.
  • It rejected the defence raised that the mall’s cleaning contractors were the liable party with the comment “It would be a startling state of affairs if independent cleaning contractors in shopping malls who are only contracted to keep floors clean became saddled with a duty to safeguard those who frequent the mall premises, and became liable to them on this basis in the event that they failed to comply with their contractual cleaning duties.”
What about “enter at your own risk” disclaimer notices?

Another defence raised was that there were “enter entirely at your own risk” type disclaimer notices “prominently displayed” at all entrances to the mall. The shopper denied having noticed any such notices either on the day in question or on previous visits to the mall, and the Court found that the mall owner and manager had failed to prove that –

  1. Such a notice was displayed at the time, and
  2. The shopper had read and accepted the terms of the notice “or at the very least that they had taken ‘reasonably sufficient’ steps to ensure that the notice would come to her attention in the ordinary course”.
The bottom line for shop and mall owners

Take all reasonable steps to keep your visitors from harm, and ensure that you have adequate and prominent disclaimer notices displayed at all times. Keep these notices updated – one of the mall owner’s problems in this case was that the disclaimer notices were old and still in the name of a previous owner.

The bottom line for shoppers

As this judgment shows, you have to jump through a number of loops to establish a claim. Besides, shops and malls by their very nature present dangers to the unwary – spillages, items dropped on the floor, wet and slippery surfaces and the like are common and if you don’t keep your eyes open and your wits about you, you run the risk of a court holding you fully or partially liable for your own misfortune. In that event it could dismiss your claim or at most only award you part of your damages on the basis of your “contributory negligence”.

Worse, you could have no claim at all if a court finds you bound by an “enter at your own risk” disclaimer sign.

So – enjoy your Festive Season shopping, but Safety First!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Don’t Risk Consequential “Loss of Profits” Damages: Check Your Contracts and Insurance!

“Consequential Loss: This is loss not directly caused by the insured event, but is an indirect result of the event. This is loss or damage that was not foreseen by the insurer or the policyholder at the time the policy was taken out. Consequential loss is in many instances not covered and cover is dependent on the risk that the policy covers” (South African Insurance Association definition)

One of the risks you run in any business is being sued for losses you cause to someone else. Although normally your risk of legal liability is linked to the claimant proving some form of negligence on your part (i.e. the onus is on the claimant to prove your negligence), there are exceptions. To take one example (as seen in the case discussed below) a “carrier of goods for reward by land” has “absolute liability” to deliver goods undamaged; and thus the onus switches to the carrier to prove a lack of fault.

No matter who has to prove what there could be serious money at stake here, so taking upfront measures to protect yourself is prudent.  

Protecting your business with insurance

Your first line of defence is of course always the practical one of minimising the actual risks of causing any form of harm or loss to any and all role-players – customers/clients, suppliers, employees etc. On the legal side, disclaimers and exclusion clauses are commonly used for the purpose but they have their limitations and should never be relied on as foolproof.

That is where taking out commercial (business) insurance can make sense – if all else fails, you can look to your insurer to cover you for whatever damages you may be found liable to pay.

Beware however – as a recent High Court judgment aptly illustrates, even with insurance you could find yourself up the creek without a paddle if you are found liable for “consequential damages”.

What are “consequential damages”?

Before we get into the details of this particular High Court case however, it’s important to know that several types of damages could be awarded against you –

  1. What are often called “general damages”, i.e. “those damages that flow naturally and generally from the kind of breach of contract in question and which the law presumes the parties contemplated as a probable result of the breach.” An electrician for example negligently frying a business customer’s distribution board is likely to be sued firstly for the cost of replacing it.
  2. What are often called “special”, “consequential” or “indirect” damages, i.e. “those damages that, although caused by the breach of contract are ordinarily in law regarded as too remote to be recoverable unless in the special circumstances attending the conclusion of the contract, the parties actually or presumptively contemplated that they would probably result from the breach.” To stick with the negligent electrician example above, the business might also sue for consequential loss such as the sales it lost because it had no electricity. The test then would be whether the electrician and the business had in mind that loss of sales would probably result from the distribution board’s failure.

Let’s see that distinction playing out in action…

Sued for R2.2m “loss of profits” and not covered by insurance  
  • A transport company (a “carrier”) agreed to move two valuable machines for a customer which intended to rent them out to the film industry.
  • Both machines were substantially damaged in transit and the carrier was found to have breached the contract of carriage and to have caused the losses through negligence.
  • The carrier claimed from its insurers to cover its liability (it had taken out “goods in transit” cover of R1m for each machine), and the insurer duly paid out a total of R1.7m for direct losses in the form of the repair of one machine and the replacement of the other.
  • No problem for the carrier there; but it was a different story with the second part of the damages claim. This was for “loss of profits” suffered by the customer through being unable to rent out the machines whilst waiting for them to be repaired/replaced.
  • The insurer refused to pay out this second part of the claim (R2,218,464) because it had agreed to cover only “actual” damage to the machines. The goods in transit policy specifically excluded “consequential financial loss as a result of any cause whatsoever”. That left the carrier fighting the customer without the safety net of insurance cover.
  • The carrier argued that its liability to the customer was limited to the R1m goods in transit cover per machine. But to no avail, the Court holding that the contract of insurance was between the transport company and its insurers and therefore it did not prevent the customer from claiming damages for losses beyond those covered by the carrier’s insurance.
  • Critically, the Court found on the facts that “This type of loss must have been contemplated and reasonably foreseen when the carriage contract was concluded by the parties” and that the customer’s loss of income followed logically from the fact that it could not hire out the machines.
  • The end result – the transport company must pay, out of its own pocket, whatever consequential damages the customer can prove (presumably the customer will go for its original R2.2m claim).
Check your contracts, and your insurance cover!

The lesson here of course is to make sure that your contracts protect you from liability for “consequential damages” and the like, and/or to check that your insurance cover will protect you if you get sued for any liability beyond “general damages”. If there is an “exclusion” clause in the policy such as the one discussed above, you’re on your own!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Violence and Looting – Can You Sue SAPS?

“When a crime is imminent and foreseen it is expected of the law enforcement agency to take appropriate action. The duty of the police to provide assistance arises from their mandate to carry out law and order” (extract from judgment below)

Can you sue the police if they fail to protect you during unrest and violence? It’s an important question not just for employers dealing with strike violence. In the aftermath of the massive damage caused by the recent public unrest and looting, the case we now discuss will no doubt find application far beyond the labour relations field.

Strike violence – damages for a vandalised farm and an assaulted employee
  • A large fruit farm was subjected to a month-long strike “characterised by violence through various acts of intimidation, assaults, malicious damage to property, vandalism, theft, road blockades and various acts of looting.”
  • Ahead of the strike, SAPS (the South African Police Services) had been informed of the looming strike and of suspicions that “there is a great likelihood that the strike is likely to be violent.” 
  • What followed was a litany of violent action by a large crowd of strikers – stonings, petrol-bombings, arson, assaults, intimidation, brandishing of knobkerries, threats of murder, looting, and destruction of property. 251 strikers were dismissed after disciplinary hearings, an event which itself led to more violence.
  • The farm and a non-striking worker stabbed by strikers sued SAPS in the High Court for damages. Although many of the facts were disputed in evidence, the Court found that the employer had made numerous pleas to SAPS, based some 15 km away, for assistance. During one police response, said the employer, it was informed that the police had no capacity to assist, whilst on many other occasions the police failed to respond at all.  
  • A Labour Court interdict and contempt of court order were allegedly not enforced, and whilst various criminal charges were laid during the course of the strike, few arrests took place (four of them only when police themselves were stoned).  
  • On the basis of the evidence before it and its analysis of the duty of the police to provide assistance when a crime is imminent, the Court ordered the Minister of Police and the National and Provincial Commissioners of Police to pay “proven or agreed damages” arising from the strike “as a result of their wrongful and negligent conduct.” 
  • Critical to the outcome was the Court’s findings that “The police had a legal duty to act positively to prevent harm to the Plaintiffs. The legal convictions of the community required of the police to act more swiftly to prevent harm to the Plaintiffs. The legal convictions of the community incorporate constitutional values and norms and in our constitutional democracy it cannot be acceptable of the police to sit idle when they should have reasonably foreseen that the strike will turn violent. When a crime is imminent and foreseen it is expected of the law enforcement agency to take appropriate action. The duty of the police to provide assistance arises from their mandate to carry out law and order.”  
  • Factually, the Court found that “The police had the capacity to patrol the area and conduct continuous monitoring which they failed to do. Their failure to respond to various pleas for assistance was not only negligent but wrongful” and “the conduct of the police viewed against the legal and public policy considerations, constitutional norms and values was unacceptable and accordingly unlawful.”
Will these principles apply to unrest and looting claims generally?

Of course the recent public unrest, destruction of property and looting were on a totally different scale and took place in a very different context to the facts before the Court in the case above.

At time of writing, media reports suggest that a general failure by security services to foresee and forestall the violence may have rendered them largely incapable of reacting effectively to whatever pleas for help they may have received. In contrast, in the case above the Court seems to have accepted that the police had the resources to react effectively but failed to do so. So although the general principles laid out above will no doubt assist in any attempt to hold the police liable for looting and other losses, time alone will tell whether victims will actually be able to prove any degree of police liability, either generally or in specific instances.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Landlord Liable for a Tragic “Freak” Flood Drowning

“Nature has the ability to spring a surprise when least expected” (extract from the judgment below)

A recent High Court decision dealing with the tragic drowning of a toddler highlights once again the legal dangers faced by property owners who let out accommodation to the public. 

This particular case related specifically to a Holiday Let on a guest farm and a natural disaster in the form of a flood, but of course any loss however caused could lead to your visitors/guests suing you. 

And weather-related disasters – think storms, floods, wildfires and the like – will almost certainly increase in both frequency and intensity if climate change predictions hold true. 

A “freak” flood and a tragic drowning
  • It should have been an idyllic holiday on a riverbank. A family booked a week’s vacation in one of three chalets built by a farmer on the banks of a river. The family was particularly attracted by the fact that this was the closest chalet to the river, with a wooden balcony from which the children could fish. 
  • The family arrived in fair weather but a violent storm and heavy rains in the river’s catchment area led to overnight flooding when the river burst its banks. They awoke at midnight to flooded rooms, struggled to escape from the chalet and were unable to save their toddler, who was swept away and drowned in the flood (according to media reports at the time, he was torn from his father’s arms whilst his father and an older brother clung to a tree in the raging flood).
  • The family sued the farmer as owner of the farm, chalet and guest house business. They also claimed against his wife, but this part of the claim failed as she was married to the farmer out of community of property, and had merely assisted him with bookings and administration. 
  • As regards the farmer as property owner, although he denied any element of “wrongfulness” (unlawfulness), the Court found that he had built the chalets in a dangerous area, known to experience occasional flooding, and therefore had a legal duty to ensure that they were safe for use by members of the public.
  • The owner also denied any negligence. The flood, he said, was a “freak of nature” and not foreseeable, no such event having been experienced for over 40 years. He had built the chalet 6m above the normal river level and 2.8m over the high water mark pointed out to him by the previous owner. 
  • Expert evidence was that the year in question had seen a normal rainfall pattern and that the day in question experienced “high but not abnormal” rainfall. The chalet was built in the “dangerous area” of a 100-year flood line area with no escape route nor flood warning mechanism. Such floods, the expert said, could be expected once every 17-18 years. 
  • Critically, the Court found on the evidence that the possibility of heavy flooding was “foreseeable” and that the owner’s failure to take steps to protect chalet occupants rendered him liable.
  • The owner also argued that the family had no right to sue because of disclaimer notices which he said were at the farm entrance warning visitors that they entered at their own risk. He also claimed to have taken reasonable steps to warn occupants of the danger of flooding. On its assessment of conflicting evidence however the Court found that even if there were warning and indemnity notices as claimed, the owner had not proved that they were brought to the family’s attention. In any event, said the Court, it would in this case be unjust and unfair to deny the family its claim.
  • The owner is accordingly liable for whatever damages the family can prove.
Property owners – protect yourself!
  • From a practical point of view you will want to pro-actively investigate any potential risks, manage them, warn your guests/tenants about them and make sure they know how to protect themselves should Mother Nature suddenly spring one of her nasty surprises. 
  • The legal side to all that of course is that you should always be able to show that you have taken reasonable steps to protect your guests from all foreseeable risks.
  • Comply also with all building and safety regulations – not doing so immediately puts you in the wrong.
  • Take advice on the use of indemnity/disclaimer/exemption notices on your website, all advertising materials, booking platforms etc, also on the premises themselves and in your contracts. Bear in mind that there are limits to their effectiveness particularly where the Consumer Protection Act or constitutional considerations apply. 
  • Insurance – make sure you are covered for any claims of this nature, and that you comply fully with any requirements imposed on you by the insurers.

Most important of all, take professional advice specific to your circumstances!

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Does Your Dog Bite? Your (Substantial) Risk Remains

“People are entitled to walk our streets without having to fear being attacked by dogs and, where such attacks occur, they should in most circumstances be able to look to the owner of the dog for recompense” (extract from judgment below)

Dog owners (in fact owners of any potentially dangerous domesticated animal) should take note of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA)’s recent refusal to extend the legal defences open to you if you are sued for injuries and losses caused by your animal.

Your risk is substantial – the dog owner in this case is being sued for R2.3m.
Three dogs savage a passer-by
  • An “itinerant gardener and refuse collector”, making his peaceful way down a suburban street and pulling the trolley in which he collects refuse, was attacked by three dogs for no reason, and without any warning.
  • The dogs savaged him to such an extent that neighbours who came to the scene thought he was dead. He survived, but his left arm was amputated as a result of his injuries. 
  • Sued for R2.341m in damages by the victim, the dog owner raised a variety of defences, but the important aspect for most of us is the SCA’s decision regarding his defence which boiled down to “the injuries weren’t my fault”.
Pauperian liability – liability without fault

Which brings us to the nub of your risk – you can be held liable on a “strict liability” or “no fault” basis. You can be sued even if you were in no way negligent.

That’s very different to most other types of liability for damages, where you are – with just a few exceptions – only at risk if you are proved to be at fault. As unfair as that may sound at first blush, there is solid reasoning behind it: “…the reality is that animals can cause harm to people and property in various ways. When they do so and the victim of their actions is innocent of fault for the harm they have caused, the interests of justice require that as between the owner and the injured party it is the owner who should be held liable for that harm.” 

That concept goes back millennia to pre-Roman laws, and our modern law continues to apply this no-fault principle in respect of domesticated animals as “pauperian liability” (“actio de pauperie” to lawyers).

This is a complicated area of law, involving much judicial interpretation of both old and modern laws, and professional advice specific to your case is essential. In a nutshell however you are liable “if the animal does damage from inward excitement or, as it is also called, from vice … its behaviour is not considered such as is usual with a well-behaved animal of the kind.”

SCA: The three defences open to you remain limited

The three limited defences that have always been available to you are –

  1. The victim “was in a place where they were not entitled to be” – for example  “a housebreaker bitten by a watch dog [or] where the animal was chained to restrain it and the injured party ventured within reach … However, in general, if the harm occurred in a public place, such as a public street, the owner would be liable.” 
  2. “The injured party or a third party provoked the attack by goading or provoking the animal.”
  3. Another person (perhaps a dog-sitter, dog walker or boarding kennel for example) had taken “custody or control” of the animal and failed through negligence to control it resulting in it injuring the victim. The claim then would be against the other person and not against you as owner. 

The dog owner here asked the Court to extend that third defence by taking away the “custody or control” requirement, so that negligence by another person not a custodian of the dog would still be a defence open to the owner. That would have given the owner a glimmer of hope with his speculative defence that that he had left the dogs behind a locked gate and “an unknown intruder must have attempted to gain access to the property via the gates and in doing so damaged the two padlocks … In turn this enabled the dogs to escape…”.

Bottom line (after much learned analysis of the law and constitutional considerations) – the Court declined to extend the third defence and your strict liability risk remains undiminished.

Control your dogs and check your insurance policies!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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