Briscoes fined $75k for customer accident

04:55, Oct 29 2013

A case that saw Briscoe Group fined $75,000 plus reparations after a customer tripped over a box is not the first step towards New Zealand becoming a nanny state, a lawyer says.

The NZX-listed retailer was ordered by the Manukau District Court to pay fines to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and $4000 in reparations to the customer, in addition to a $5000 contribution already paid.

A statement late on Friday said the customer tripped over a carton in an aisle at the Manukau Briscoes Homeware store last December.

The customer hurt his hip and fractured his leg in the fall after tripping over a box of display goods when shopping for a kitchen appliance.

Accident compensation lawyer John Miller said there was no chance of companies being forced to constantly pay extensive fines or compensation for accidents that occurred in their stores.

People who were injured in New Zealand were covered by ACC and could not sue in the civil court for damages unless the person could prove the organisation meant them harm or the business was reckless, he said.

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Companies could be fined only through a criminal proceeding brought by MBIE, Miller said.

In this case, the charge was failing to ensure a hazard that arose in the workplace did not harm the victim.

Miller said it was rare for MBIE to take on cases unless they were clear-cut and it looked as though a win was on the cards.

Judges awarded compensation for emotional damages, but compensation was also acknowledgement that the amount awarded by ACC was "quite meagre".

He said $75,000 was a big fine to be imposed on a Kiwi company.

Retailers were usually "pretty quick" to mop up a spill or fix a potentially dangerous situation, he said.

Common courtesy between people usually prevailed, Miller said.

Under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, employers must identify existing or potential hazards and eliminate or isolate the hazards where possible.

The act states that employers have a responsibility to try to prevent harm to employees and the public.

Foodstuffs retail general manager Rob Chemaly said injuries caused by people tripping over boxes or boxes falling on them were not common in the company's stores.

Member stores, including New World, Four Square and Pak 'n Save, were responsible for keeping their staff and customers safe, he said.

Stores had procedures to follow when replenishing shelves or when storing products high or on the floor, Chemaly said.

Boxes should not be left unattended as they might constitute a tripping hazard, he said.

Chemaly said all shelving in Foodstuffs' supermarkets met accepted standards before the earthquakes in Wellington and Christchurch.

"Foodstuffs are confident in the integrity and safety of their shelving during a seismic event," he said.

Westfield general manager of shopping centre management Linda Trainer said each Westfield shopping centre was responsible for safety in the common mall areas, but retailers were responsible for meeting health and safety requirements within their stores.

ACC said it did not hold records on injury claims with enough detail to determine how frequently these types of accidents occurred, but most similar accidents were fall-related.

In a statement issued to the NZX last Friday, Briscoes said the company pleaded guilty to the charges and co-operated with MBIE throughout the investigation.

"Briscoe Group takes health and safety in our stores very seriously and we constantly review our policies and procedures to ensure we are minimising risks for our customers and staff," it said.

The company said the fine was higher than expected, considering precedents for equivalent accidents and circumstances.

Briscoes said it would not take any further action until it had reviewed the judge's sentencing notes.

The company's shares last traded at $2.42, valuing it at $520 million.

Fairfax Media