THIS FLOOR CAN KILL YOU
Bloomberg Businessweek|November 01, 2021
Americans spend $50 billion a year recovering from spills. An ex-flooring salesman says he’s battling Big Floor to make everyone’s footing safer
Peter Andrey Smith

On April 22, 2011, not long before she planned to marry, Amber Morris walked into a Costco in St. Louis where a puddle was waiting. In the store, Morris slipped and hit her right knee so hard on the floor that she dislocated her kneecap. Her fiancé helped her up and took a photo of the slick of rotisserie chicken grease coating the floor where she’d fallen. Two weeks later, Morris went in for emergency surgery and never came out. A blood clot in her heart killed her at age 39. Her burial took place on what was to have been her wedding day.

Morris’s parents filed a wrongful death suit against Costco Wholesale Corp. and hired a St. Louis law firm that called itself the “ winningest” on billboard ads. That firm recruited an expert witness named Russell Kendzior, a former flooring salesman from Texas who over the past quarter century has been retained in more than 1,000 lawsuits and styles himself as America’s most prominent floor safety advocate. Kendzior was prepared to argue not only that the chicken grease was evidence of negligence but also that the store’s flooring was inherently dangerous. In 2015, Costco, which declined to comment for this story, settled for an undisclosed sum, according to Kendzior.

The millions paid out annually in settlements are compounded by the $50 billion that Americans spend on health care annually to treat slips, trips, and falls. In a typical year, bad spills kill thousands and seriously injure hundreds of thousands, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than a quarter of the 888,220 injuries resulting in days away from work in 2019 were caused by slips, trips, and falls, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s common to refer to these cases broadly as accidents, but Kendzior says that’s a misnomer. “Accidents are not predictable and not preventable,” he says. “Most slips and falls are not accidents. They’re incidents.”

Kendzior and other safety advocates argue that a huge part of the problem, one in urgent need of reform, is the lack of mandatory testing and labeling for tile, vinyl, and other commercial flooring materials. Friction is what experts use to gauge slipperiness, measuring the wear and resistance between two objects, such as a shoe rubbing against a floor. But there are no mandatory federal or industrywide friction standards for flooring or other walkway surfaces— only voluntary guidelines, some of them mutually exclusive. Even the industry’s own standards find floor safety wanting. In a 2017 report by CNA Financial Corp., one of America’s largest insurers, half of all U.S. commercial flooring failed to measure up to an industry standard supported by ceramic tile manufacturers.

Across the multibillion-dollar commercial flooring industry, definitive numbers can be tough to come by. Yet the frequency of personal injury claims at major retail chains, which include falls, underscores advocates’ concerns. Data from Bloomberg Law show that over the past year, Costco was named in more than 200 personal injury lawsuits, while Walmart Inc. appeared in an average of three every day, which accounted for 60% of all new litigation filed against it. Kendzior says a single big-box store received 200 claims worth an estimated $3 million during one particular six-month span. Publix Super Markets Inc. reported roughly 69,000 falls across its 925 stores over five years in a 2012 affidavit provided by the company’s in-house legal assistant in a slip-and-fall case in Florida. None of these companies responded to requests for comment.

Why aren’t retailers and other commercial businesses taking this problem seriously enough to solve it? Two reasons, Kendzior says: First, the costs are generally passed on to the companies’ insurers. And second, ageism. While plenty of working-age people like Morris take devastating falls every year, most cases involve the elderly. “We live in a society where youth is glorified,” he says. “And being old is, you know, put them in a nursing home and let them die.”

Over the past decade, as Kendzior’s voice has grown louder in Washington, an ecosystem of floor safety entrepreneurs has emerged. These teams, who test ways to prevent robot feet from sliding on tile and other materials, broadly agree that clear standards are needed when it comes to how slippery a floor can be. They disagree, however, on what those standards should be, and even how to assess them. A tribometer, the primary instrument used to measure friction, can be calibrated differently from manufacturer to manufacturer and return wildly different results.

The firms often have competing motivations, and many have a vested interest in trash-talking the others. There are the researchers for such trade groups as the Resilient Floor Covering Institute, which represents makers of vinyl, cork, and laminate surfaces. The Tile Council of North America represents, well, tile. There are franchises like Walkway Management Group Inc.; consultants who also sell tribometers; and other firms that offer to test surfaces and certify products. They often work directly with the flooring companies.

Then there’s Kendzior, who’s built a one-man consulting firm called Traction Experts Inc. around his witness testimony; a small company called MAD Safety Instruments that distributes tribometers; and a nonprofit, the National Floor Safety Institute (NFSI), which is trying to make his the federal standard. The only thing most of the other organizations agree with him on is that U.S. flooring materials need better labeling (like letter grades) so people know how slippery they can get. Some of the trade groups don’t even agree with that.

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