15 Oct No Legal Duty Owed Based on Defendant Business Owner’s Internal Safety Policy

A recent  decision of the Illinois Appellate Court First District held that a company’s internal safety policy, official or otherwise, does not create a legally binding duty, independent of the common law. Tafoya-Cruz v. Temperance Beer Co., LLC, 2020 IL App (1st) 190606.

In Tafoya-Cruz, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit after he slipped and fell on a liquid substance when he entered the bathroom in defendant’s brewery which resulted in personal injuries. The bar manager testified in his deposition that he had an unofficial personal policy of inspecting the bathroom every 30 minutes when the brewery was busy as it was on the evening plaintiff was present. Seizing on such testimony, plaintiff posited that defendant owed a legal duty to plaintiff to inspect the bathroom every 30 minutes.

The court categorically rejected the proposition that an employee’s unofficial inspection policy, or even a company’s official policy could impose a duty of care on the company independent of the common law. The court relied on long standing precedent from the Illinois Supreme Court which stated “[w]hether a legal duty exists is a question of law and is determined by reference to whether the parties stood in such a relationship to each other that the law imposes an obligation on one to act for the protection of the other.” The court also relied on a more recent holding from the Illinois Supreme Court which held that “[s]elf-imposed policies can exist co-extensively with the law. Penalizing a defendant by imposing a duty on it to comply with self-imposed safety measures that exceed any duty imposed by law, however, would discourage employers from creating policies intended to protect their employees and the public.”

The court clarified that a defendant’s internal policy could, under certain circumstances, create a duty based on a voluntary undertaking. However, to impose a duty based on a voluntary undertaking, the plaintiff  would have to establish that not only did the defendant have a policy in place, but also that the policy was communicated and relied upon by its patrons. The plaintiff neither pleaded a voluntary undertaking nor were facts elicited to support a finding that the defendant engaged in a voluntary undertaking.

The plaintiff also argued that the defendant had constructive notice of the spill. However, the court stated that constructive notice could only be shown where a dangerous condition existed for a sufficient length of time to impute knowledge of its existence on the defendant. Although the issue of constructive notice is ordinarily an issue for a jury, counsel for defendant obtained deposition testimony showing that no one knew the length of time the liquid was present on the floor. Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s entry of a summary judgment when confronted with the issues of whether a duty is owed based on the existence of an internal policy and on the issue of constructive notice.

The Tafoya-Cruz decision is instructive because it shows that a policy of a company, whether official, or unofficial, does not in and of itself, create a duty to a plaintiff. Also, through effective witness examination on the issue of constructive notice, a premises liability case may be positioned for summary disposition.

This article is a publication of MWH Law Group LLP and is intended to provide general information regarding legal issues and developments to our clients and other friends. It should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or situations. For further information on your own situation, we encourage you to contact the author of the article or any other member of the firm.

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Vincent J. Vigil
Vincent J. Vigil
Partner, Chicago & Milwaukee

150 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 2800, Chicago, IL 60601
P: (312) 734-1457 / F: (414) 436-0354
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