Shop owners have a duty of care to their customers. The duty of care necessitates preventing harm to customers, which can be reasonably foreseen. The duty is however not limitless.

In De Wet v Gateway Plaza Meatworld CC De Wet slipped and fell at Gateway Plaza. She alleged that her fall was caused by oil splatters on the floor. Gateway Plaza denied any spillage on the floor. It alleged that even if there was any substance on the floor, it was so negligible that no one could see it. Gateway Plaza’s cleaning procedure consisted of two permanent staff members at the front of the shop who were permanently on the floor to clean and mop up any spillage.

The CCTV footage at Gateway Plaza confirmed that De Wet had fallen. The fact that De Wet had fallen at Gateway Plaza did not render the shop owner automatically negligent. The question before the court was whether the procedures put in place by Gateway Plaza were sufficient to prevent the foreseeable occurrence of harm.

The court applied the well-established negligence test from Kruger v Coetzee and asked whether a reasonable shop owner in the position of Gateway Plaza:

  • would foresee the reasonable possibility of their conduct injuring a person (or their property) and causing them patrimonial loss;
  • would take reasonable steps to guard against such occurrence; and
  • the shop owner failed to take such steps.

In applying the above test, the court decided that Gateway Plaza ‘could have done no more than it did to ensure that the environment within which customers shopped was safe’. The court took into account that approximately 32 customers had walked in the vicinity of where De Wet had fallen. The court did not take any issue with the cleaners not being seen in the 15 minute period of the CCTV footage. The court further decided that the cleaners could have done their rounds before the CCTV footage had started, and after it had ended. As a result, De Wet’s claim was dismissed.

This case confirms that a court will not impose an unrealistic burden on shop owners. The mere fact that there is a substance on the floor does not render a shop owner automatically negligent. Shop owners are required to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of their customers. In the event that a shop owner fails to fulfil their duty of care to customers, this would be considered a wrongful omission if it leads to harm to customers that is reasonably foreseeable. The reasonableness test must be applied to each set of facts.