Liability due to things: the owner of a wine cellar is fully liable for the damage suffered by a client who fell down an unprotected staircase leading to the storeroom

by | 20 Oct 2023

Court of Appeal of Toulouse, 1st chamber, 5 September 2023 no. 22/03762


The owner of a wine cellar was held liable on the grounds on the liability regime due to things (in French, “responsabilité du fait des choses”), for damages caused to one of his clients who fell down the unprotected and unsecured staircase leading to the storeroom of the establishment.

This was the conclusion reached by the Toulouse Court of Appeal in its decision of 5 September 2023, overturning the order of the pre-trial judge, who had rejected the victim’s request for an advance payment on the grounds that she had not demonstrated the “abnormal” nature of the staircase.

It should be remembered that, under French law, in matters of liability for damage caused by things, when the damage is caused by an inert thing (in the present case, the staircase), the victim must show that this thing was the instrument of the damage because of its abnormal position in order to engage the liability of its guardian, on the basis of article 1242 paragraph 1 of the French Civil Code.

In this case, the question was whether the staircase presented a particular abnormality that could not be seriously challenged, such as to justify the award of an advance payment on the compensation for the clients’ injuries.

The Toulouse Court of Appeal answered in the affirmative, taking into consideration the steepness of the staircase, which was unprotected, clearly unlit and inadequately signposted to the public by a simple removable wire hanging on either side, located at the back of the store near the toilets to which clients had access. The judges considered that this situation was sufficient to demonstrate the particular danger and abnormality of the staircase, in the absence of any protective system to prevent access, and with no railings to stop an unexpected fall.

The appeal judges considered that this configuration of the premises was indeed the instrument of the damage, so that the liability of the owner in the occurrence of the damage caused to the client was not seriously questionable, without any fault on the part of the latter being able to exonerate him from his liability, even partially.

As this decision reminds us, the victim of damage caused by an inert thing has the burden of proving its abnormality, although he or she does not have to prove that the guardian committed a fault, since this is a no-fault liability regime.