Earlier in August of this year, a supermarket in La Bonita, Clark County, partially collapsed, causing four injuries. Everyone who was injured was rushed to the hospital. The partial collapse only affected the front of the building; however, the supermarket remained closed, and the staff was reassigned to other stores.
The Building Department inspected the structure and deemed it “unsafe for occupancy,” and ordered it closed. The Building Department also advised the supermarket owner to hire a structural engineer to assess the building. All first responders agreed that it was lucky that the collapse happened early in the morning because if it occurred during busy hours, there could have been many more injuries or deaths.
Premises liability is an area of personal injury law that refers to a property owner’s responsibility to maintain a safe premises for the occupants (workers and patrons). Premises liability imposes different responsibilities depending on who owns the property and for what purpose it is operated.
For example, private homes that are not open to the public are responsible for identifying and correcting obvious safety issues, such as holes in the floor or exposed nails. The burden is relatively low for private homeowners because they don’t let large in large numbers of members of the public.
However, the safety burden is much higher for a business that is regularly open to the public (like a supermarket). Businesses that regularly invite members of the public into their premises (like customers to a supermarket) are required to identify and correct or warn patrons of all known and unknown dangers that could have been discovered. Therefore, supermarkets need to conduct regular inspections of their aisles to remove spills or other hazards from the walkways. Supermarkets also need to conduct regular inspections of other issues that could arise (such as mold).
For the workers and patrons injured in a supermarket collapse, there are a few potential defendants:
- Building inspector,
- Builder, and
The supermarket is the likeliest responsible party because it ensures that its building is safe for occupancy. However, if the danger of collapse couldn’t have been reasonably discovered, it may not be liable. For example, suppose the supermarket had hired an architect firm or inspector to review the safety of the building and was told by the inspector that the building is safe. In that case, the supermarket may rely on that report to avoid liability. But, the plaintiffs can also argue that the supermarket hired the inspector; therefore, the inspector’s actions can be imputed to the supermarket. Thus, the supermarket is responsible for their injuries but can seek compensation (i.e., indemnification) from the inspector for doing a lousy job inspecting the premises.
Additionally, if an investigation determines that the building was constructed poorly, then the builder and/or its subcontractors could be liable. For example, if the builder used substandard materials or did not follow proper protocol in erecting the supermarket.
As made clear by this brief exploration of liability and procedure, the legal issues presented by this collapse are complex. The plaintiffs can recover for their injuries and collect money for their harm from one of the potential defendants. These procedural battles will likely be resolved among the defendants as they try to assign blame. In general, the plaintiffs won’t have to prove which party was specifically responsible because, under res ipsa loquitur, the plaintiff need only prove that they were injured and that their injury could only have occurred if one of the defendants was negligent. Here, supermarkets aren’t supposed to collapse; therefore, one of these defendants did something wrong, and it is up to the defendants to determine who is ultimately responsible.