As reported in the Washington Post, a jury trial in Fairfax County, Virginia, resulted in an award of $3.2 million in damages to a 36-year-old Arlington resident who was injured while shopping at IKEA’s Potomac Mills store. On July 28, 2006, as the shopper stopped near the store’s exit to inspect the bargain bin, a display of countertops weighing over 350 pounds came crashing down on her, crushing her pelvis.
Personal injury lawsuits based on theories of premises liability do not typically involve damages awards involving millions of dollars, especially in the conservative jurisdiction of Fairfax County, Virginia. In 2008, for example, only 15 jury verdicts across the entire Commonwealth of Virginia were for one million dollars or more. In this particular case, however, the jury was moved by the fact that the shopper was an athlete who frequently traveled to China, Europe, and across the United States to pursue hiking, biking, and climbing activities. Since the accident, she can only walk about three blocks before the pain becomes unbearable. In other words, IKEA’s negligence resulted in effectively terminating her athletic pursuits and the joy she derived therefrom. The jury decided to compensate her for this pain and suffering.
Business that invite customers to shop at their retail stores need to take precautions to ensure the safety of their shoppers. An injured patron will generally have grounds to sue the business if the patron is injured by falling merchandise and the patron did not cause the objects to fall. This would be true regardless of whether the business owner is guilty of active negligence or simply allowed a known dangerous condition to exist on the premises without taking steps to protect the store’s customers.
Even if the business is negligent, however, it will not be held liable if the patron’s injury was not causally related to that negligence or to a dangerous condition on the premises, or if the acts of a third party supersede the business owner’s negligence. IKEA was not found to be entitled to the benefit of any of these defenses.