It can be tough to know who is liable for a malfunctioning ATM
ATMs are used every day by millions of people. Few ever get injured, but it happens once in a while. If you’re one of the unlucky ones, you should know your legal options to receive compensation.
ATMs (automated teller machines) are convenient. Short on cash? Just swing by the nearest ATM, slide your card in, and cash appears like magic. Of course, more and more people are relying on Venmo or a quick scan of their phone to pay for what they want or need, but sometimes you just need a little cash.
We don’t really consider ATMs a prime source of injuries—and they’re not so common—but there are things that can happen, and it’s important to understand your legal options and figure out who is liable if you’re injured.
Let’s first take a look at the possibility of an ATM malfunction.
The first thing to note is that there can be mechanical malfunctions that cause you inconvenience, but that’s not the same as injury. For example, say the machine doesn’t return your card, or doesn’t give you the correct amount of money. Those things can be inconvenient and a headache to handle with your bank, but they are not considered personal injuries that give you standing to file a lawsuit.
The intent of personal injury law is to make the plaintiff (injured person) whole, or to restore them to the financial condition they would be in if the accident hadn’t happened. In order to have a successful personal injury claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant negligently caused their injury, and that the injury cost the plaintiff money. In other words, if the door to the ATM nips your finger and causes an injury that can be “treated” with a simple Band-Aid, you would not have a lawsuit because it didn’t cost you money. Annoyance or inconvenience does not cost money and is not compensable under the personal injury law system.
What injuries could possibly happen at an ATM?
You might be surprised at the list:
- Slips and falls due to wet or uneven surfaces
- Burns or electrical shocks from machine malfunctions
- Cuts or bruises from protruding machine parts
- Injuries from falling objects (like a sign above the ATM)
The question of liability depends on several factors:
- Location: Where is the ATM located? Usually, ATMs are attached to banks or inside retail stores, but they can be in other public locations. An ATM that’s part of a bank’s drive-through would generally be the bank’s responsibility.
- Ownership: Who owns the ATM? It’s usually either a bank or a third-party vendor.
- Maintenance: Who’s responsible for the machine’s maintenance? It might be the bank or a contractor the bank uses solely for ATM servicing.
- Type of malfunction: The first question is whether the malfunction was foreseeable, or able to be anticipated by the party in charge of its functioning or upkeep.
When is the bank liable?
If the ATM is inside the bank, in its vestibule, at a drive-through, or otherwise within bank property, the bank would generally be liable for its malfunctions and injuries.
Premises liability law could play a role in this, too. This area of law is related to injuries that happen as a result of a property hazard. For example, if the ATM actually tips over and injures you, then it could be a premises liability claim against the bank as the manager of the property.
A falling ATM (however unlikely) isn’t the only scenario. Premises liability related to ATMs could include other accidents within the ATM vestibule or while using an outdoor ATM. For instance, an overhead sign that falls while you’re using the machine, a slip and fall because of a wet floor, injuries because of swinging or broken doors, and other types of mishaps.
Liability for ATMs not connected to a bank
Third-party ownership: Sometimes, the ATM is owned by a third party, complicating the liability picture. If you’re injured by an ATM in a public place that’s not a bank, it could be difficult to determine who is liable.
Retailer responsibility: The store might share in liability if it was negligent in some way, such as placing the ATM in a hazardous location.
Whether in a bank or a store, regular maintenance checks are essential. If the company or individual who is responsible for maintenance and upkeep fails to do so properly, they can be liable for a foreseeable injury.
What makes an injury foreseeable? If the ATM had a history of ignored malfunctions, that is one strong claim for negligence and foreseeability. Likewise, if there are other issues with the condition of the premises, or if staff or customers noted problems, then the managing party would be on notice that there is a likelihood of injury.
Keeping an ATM in good working condition is not just a matter of convenience—it's a matter of public safety. Failure to properly maintain an ATM can not only lead to malfunction but also to possible injury for the users. So what kind of maintenance should ATM owners or banks regularly perform to ensure that their machines are safe to use?
- Mechanical parts. All moving parts, including card readers and cash dispensers, should be checked for wear and tear. Loose or damaged parts can become hazardous.
- Electrical systems. The electrical components should be reviewed to ensure they're in good condition to prevent electric shocks or outages that could harm users.
- Surrounding area. The floor and access area around the ATM should be kept free from hazards that could cause slips, trips, or falls. This includes checking for loose tiles, uneven ground, or other potential risks.
- Bug fixes. Regularly updating the ATM's software can prevent glitches that might freeze the system or cause other unexpected behavior, leading to user frustration and potential injury.
- Security. Software updates often include security patches that can prevent unauthorized access to the machine, thus maintaining the physical integrity of the ATM.
Signage and warnings
- Clear instructions. Providing clear instructions for using the ATM can prevent user error that might result in injury. For example, guidance on safely retrieving cash can help users avoid accidental pinches or jams.
- Alerts and warnings. If the ATM is undergoing maintenance or has a known issue, appropriate signage should be displayed to alert users to potential risks.
Cleanliness and hygiene
- Regular cleaning. The ATM and its surrounding area should be regularly cleaned to remove any spillage, debris, or objects that could cause a user to slip or trip.
- Sanitation. Especially in the age of pandemics, ensuring the machine is regularly sanitized is a part of maintaining a safe machine, as this can prevent the spread of germs and related illnesses.
- Maintenance logs. All maintenance activities should be diligently recorded. This not only helps in the effective management of the machine but also serves as proof that the ATM owner is taking the necessary steps to ensure user safety.
- Incident reports. Any incidents or complaints related to the ATM should be recorded and reviewed to identify if there’s a recurring issue that needs to be addressed.
Security measures and duty of care
- Video surveillance. Most ATMs are equipped with video cameras as a basic security measure. Failure to have a working camera could potentially put the ATM owner or bank in a position of liability.
- Adequate lighting. ATMs should be well-lit to deter criminal activity. Poorly lit ATMs are generally more attractive to criminals, increasing the risk of customer injury.
- Security guards. In high-risk areas, some banks employ security guards to monitor ATM activity. The absence of such a measure could, in certain circumstances, be considered negligent.
Some businesses opt to have their ATMs reviewed annually by third-party safety inspectors to ensure that they're complying with all regulations and safety standards.
Getting injured by a malfunctioning ATM can feel like a bad stroke of luck, but remember: you do have legal options. Whether it's a bank or a third party, someone has a duty to keep that ATM safe. If they fail, you shouldn’t have to pay the price alone. Always consult a personal injury lawyer if you find yourself navigating this complex terrain. Stay safe, and may your cash withdrawals always be without incident.