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December 12, 2017

Precautionary "Wet Floor" Signs Do Not Imply Actual or Constructive Notice of a Slippery Condition

It's that time of year in the Northeast. During the winter season, businesses can expect their customers and patrons to inadvertently track slush and snow in with them as they enter buildings, storefronts, and other commercial properties. In this regard, businesses can take precautionary measures to alert customers of the potential dangers associated with floors that may become wet and slippery throughout the day, without concern that actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition will retroactively be imputed to them by virtue of the measures themselves.

For example, in Beck v. Stewart's Shops Corp., the Appellate Division, Third Department held that the placement of "Wet Floor" signs throughout the store as a precautionary measure to alert customers to the possibility of slippery conditions was insufficient to impart actual notice of a slippery or dangerous condition within the store.

In Beck, the plaintiff sustained injuries after he fell inside a convenience store as he was preparing a cup of coffee. It was undisputed that there was no precipitation on the day of the incident. Nevertheless, snow had accumulated in the defendant's parking area, and even plaintiff testified that his shoes must have been wet upon walking into the store. With the understanding that customers may track snow and slush in with them from the parking area, defendant's employees placed mats at the store's entrance and in various locations throughout the store itself. Additionally, at least four "Wet Floor" signs had been placed throughout the store, including in the area of plaintiff's fall.

An employee of the defendant testified that "these safety measures were precautionary" and "taken in response to the possibility of customers tracking in snow and ice on their shoes, and were used often during inclement weather." Prior to plaintiff's fall, a store employee performing a regularly scheduled inspection observed that the floor in the area of the accident was "damp" and "spotty due to shoe bottoms," but was not "wet" and did not require mopping.

On the above facts, the lower court held that the defendant demonstrated its entitlement to summary judgment. In opposition, plaintiff argued that the use of "Wet Floor" signs raised a question of fact as to whether the defendant had actual notice of a dangerous condition in the area of his accident. The lower court rejected this argument, and the Third Department affirmed.

More specifically, the Court held that "defendant's use of the signs, taken together with the employee's general awareness of the condition of the floor, fail[ed] to demonstrate that the defendant knew or should have known of the specific hazardous condition alleged to have caused plaintiff's injury." Likewise, the evidence established that the defendant met its burden of demonstrating that its employees performed regular inspections within the store for purposes of identifying and remediating any dangerous or hazardous conditions.

A "Wet Floor" sign does not alleviate a property owner's burden to remediate a dangerous condition of which it is aware. However, it is understood, especially in the Northeast, that businesses must take precautionary measures to protect their customers and patrons from conditions that are otherwise unavoidable. Indeed, the Third Department recognized in Beck that the defendant "could not prevent some water and mud from being brought into the store given the inclement weather." The fact is, it is incumbent upon business to take steps consistent with those in Beck – placement of signs, regular inspections, and mopping when necessary – to ensure the safety of their customers during periods of inclement weather.


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