Last year, Colleen McQuillan successfully sued the supermarket chain after sustaining injuries from slipping on a stray grape in the fruit and vegetable section of the Liechhardt store. But the case when Woolworths appealed the 2016 decision, the case took an unexpected turn. The District Court’s orders were set aside following Woolworth’s denial it had breached its duty of care or that staff failed to keep “a proper lookout” for the grape on the floor.
In November 2012, Ms McQuillan slipped on a “colour unknown” grape shortly after the store opened at 10am. In the original decision, the District Court found the single grape must have fallen onto the floor near the banana stand while staff were moving produce from the cool room to a display table. The Court addressed whether there were any possibilities as to why Woolworths did not identify the grape or take preventive measures. The primary judge concluded the grape was a “slip hazard”, and declared it was the cause of Ms McQuillan’s fall. His Honour argued the grocery store failed to take reasonable precautions against the risk of Ms McQuillan slipping. As a result, the District Court awarded Ms McQuillan $151,000 in compensation plus legal costs.
However, the Court of Appeal has overturned the District Court decision on Monday, forcing Ms McQuillan to return the payout.
Basically, Woolworths claimed the District Court judge’s decision contained two factual errors. First, his Honour allegedly failed to establish the grape was on the floor before the store opened. Second, there were no employees on duty in the produce section between 10am and the time of Ms McQuillan’s fall at 10.06am. Instead, the grocery store contended:
- It did not commit a casual act of negligence;
- It did not fail to take reasonable precautions;
- It did not know or ought to have known of the grape on the floor; and
- It was negligent in failing to remove the grape.
The Court of Appeal addressed three important questions that were raised in the previous decision. The Court questioned whether the primary judge erred in finding that:
- Woolworths did not take reasonable precautions against the risk of Ms McQuillan slipping.
- Woolworths knew or ought to have known of a grape on the floor.
- Woolworths was negligent in failing to remove the grape.
The Court found there was no evidence that staff were at the specials display table between 9.30am and 10am, rather it was described as speculation. The Court examined how the grape was dislodged and whether it would need to have rolled a distance of 10 metres without staff noticing its movement or where it landed. Also, the Court ruled visual inspection by floor staff could have been obstructed possibly due to physical objects like trolleys and crates. The judges said “there was no occasion for either of the Woolworths staff, exercising reasonable care, to scan the floor specifically near where Ms McQuillan later fell as they passed near that area.” For this reason, the Court of Appeal aside the District Court’s findings. Further, the Court concluded the negligence by staff could not stand because it could not be established whether the grape was on the floor before 10am.
A Woolworths spokesperson confirmed the supermarket chain will work hard to ensure they have a “robust in-store health and safety procedures in place” for the safety of their customers and team members.
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