A recent case looked at what is a reasonable duty of care when assessing whether a supermarket was at fault for a tripping hazard

The recent Court of Appeal decision in Catherine Hines v Iceland Foods [2010] is good news for defendants.

The claimant Hines was visiting the defendant’s supermarket premises and was passing through one of the checkout areas when she stepped on a stray wire basket on the floor, lost her footing and fell. She suffered a painful injury to her shoulder.

Hines established in her evidence that the wire basket on the floor was a danger. As a result, the defendant had to explain how the accident could have arisen if it was exercising reasonable care.

When the case was first heard, the judge found in favour of Hines. He said that the evidence demonstrated that the defendant’s system for ensuring customer safety was inadequate, as it did not pick up the stray basket.

But the Court of Appeal found that the district judge had failed to make a finding about the period of time that the basket was on the floor. The court could not see that the basket would have remained as an obstacle to other customers for a significant period of time.

It was accepted that Iceland staff had been trained to remove items such as this, when they became aware of them, as a matter of priority. It was difficult to see what more the defendant could have done to prevent such an accident.

A system could not have been devised to avoid it. To have a member of staff on duty at all times to check the aisles of the store and identify slipping and tripping hazards was too high a standard, given that the defendant already had a number of systems in place. It was not reasonable to suggest that they should employ anyone to do this. On that basis, the appeal was allowed.

This case established that if an occupier has a satisfactory system to deal with slipping and tripping hazards in place, the duty of care to visitors to ensure their safety is one of reasonableness.

The court in this case emphasised that it was not prepared to set the standard for a system beyond this.

Helen Brown is a partner and head of the public sector unit at Langleys.