Kathryn Strong lost a leg some years ago and, as a result, walked with crutches. That wasn't the end of her misfortune. More recently she suffered a serious spinal injury when one of her crutches landed on a greasy chip lying on the floor.

The floor was outside the entrance to a Woolworths store in a shopping centre in New South Wales. Although not part of the store, the area was used as a sidewalk sales area by Woolworths.

The area was close to the food court. The shopping centre opened at 8.00 am and the accident occurred at 12.30 pm. On the relevant day Woolworths had no system in place for the periodic inspection and cleaning of the relevant area (whereas in the food court the shopping centre owner had cleaners checking the floor every 15 minutes).

Kathryn sued Woolworths and the shopping centre owner. Her claim against the owner failed because the judge concluded that Woolworths had sole care of the relevant area. However, the judge ordered Woolworths to pay about $600,000 to Kathryn.

Woolworths appealed successfully to the NSW Court of Appeal. Kathryn then took her case to the High Court. It is somewhat surprising that the High Court allowed her to appeal because the relevant law is settled and did not end up being changed by the High Court.

Woolworths argued that Kathryn had failed to produce evidence which would allow a conclusion to be drawn about when the chip fell on the floor. As a result she had failed to prove her case, because the chip could have ended up on the floor only a short time before the accident.

The High Court disagreed. It said Kathryn only needed to prove that, had a proper system been in place, it was likely that the chip would have been detected and removed. In this case it was more likely that the chip was dropped in the four hours between 8.00 and 12.10 pm than in the last 20 minutes before 12.30 pm. That remained the case even though chips were more commonly purchased during lunchtime and even though Woolworths had a "people greeter" in the area until 12:00 pm (who might have seen the chip had it been present before that time).

The Court held that 'reasonable care required inspection and removal of slipping hazards at intervals not greater than 20 minutes in the sidewalk sales area' and Kathryn won.

Strong v Woolworths Limited [2012] HCA 5

The High Court has confirmed that occupiers of busy retail areas will not be able to defend slip-and-fall claims unless they have a documented, and implemented, system of regular inspection and cleaning. Where hazards such as dropped food are likely to occur, the entire floor should be inspected at brief intervals.

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