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Who Pays for $7,500 Slip?
by Ron Davis

The janitorial and security services hired by a New Jersey shopping center may have to share in the blame for an injury suffered by one of the center’s patrons.

The shopping center is Ocean County Mall, and the injury occurred in the center’s common area. The patron slipped on a spilled fruit drink, causing her to fall. She sued, charging that the shopping center and its janitorial and security services failed to maintain the facility in a safe and proper manner.

Evidence in the case shows that the shopping center owner turned over to the janitorial and security services the responsibilities for keeping the premises clean. Those services are thus seemingly charged with patrolling the common area and policing or picking up any kind of debris or spills. At all times, at least two janitorial service employees are on duty for that purpose.

And, as part of their duties, security staff members also look for spills while making their rounds inside and outside the shopping center. On the day of the patron’s injury, five security officers were on duty--three security firm employees, an off-duty police officer, and the director of security for the center.

When the case came to trial, a local judge dismissed the charges against the janitorial and security services. She explained, first, that the contract between the shopping center and the janitorial service does not specifically require service personnel to patrol the common area. As for the security service, the judge reasoned that while its personnel are required to patrol, there is no evidence that they did anything other those duties and were therefore not negligent.

As for the shopping center, a jury subsequently found that its owners were liable for the patron’s injury and should pay her damages of $7,500. The shopping center owners appealed.

A New Jersey appellate court reversed the lower-court judge’s decision with regard to the service firms retained by the shopping center. Explained the judges, “The judge took an overly restrictive view of the janitorial-service contract. While it is true that it did not use the word ‘patrol,’ it is clear that the service had undertaken a broad contractual responsibility to the shopping center to maintain and police the common area and to supply personnel during the open hours of the shopping center to implement that responsibility.... The same is true of the security firm. One of the duties of the personnel was to keep an eye out for spills or other obstructions on the floors of the common area that might present a hazard to the patrons.” (Ryder v. Ocean County Mall, 774 A.2d 700 [N.J. Super. A.D. 2001])

Decision: June 2001
Published: August 2001



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