Proving Fault in Slip-And-Fall Accidents
It's sometimes difficult to prove who is at fault for slip-and-fall accidents. Thousands of people each year are injured from slipping and falling. Premises liability can arise from falls on wet floors, potholes, or stairs. A fall claim can also result from surfaces that have become slick or dangerous.
It can be challenging to prove that the owner of the property is responsible for a slip-and-fall accident. A slip-and-fall case could be caused by a hazardous condition outside anyone's control. An injury claim at a grocery store might paint the business owner as a liable party. They may be responsible for dangerous premises, but unsafe conditions aren't the only factor considered in a slip-and-fall lawsuit.
Could the Property Owner Have Prevented the Accident?
If you or a loved one has been injured in a slip-and-fall accident, it may be tempting to pursue justice in the form of a lawsuit as soon as possible. But first, ask yourself: "Could the accident have been avoided if the property owner had been more careful?"
In tort law, or the law concerning civil wrongs, personal injury claims come down to negligence. That means a plaintiff will have to prove someone's carelessness caused their injuries. To show negligence in a personal injury case, a premises liability claim will allege that:
- A business or homeowner has a duty of care to an occupier of the premises.
- They have breached the duty by failing to take reasonable care against harm to the occupier.
- Their breach is the cause of the occupier's injuries.
- The occupier of the premises suffered damages, such as broken bones and medical treatment costs.
In practice, personal injury has much more nuance. It's not enough that a claimant has suffered serious injuries. The property owner might not have a duty of care to begin with. Or, if they do have a duty, they may have already satisfied it notwithstanding that injuries occurred. For example, suppose a leaking roof leads to a slippery condition that causes an injury. The property owner may not be responsible for the injuries if they took reasonable care under the circumstances. If the property owner installed a drainage grate in the floor to limit slippery conditions, they may have done all the law required of them.
In addition, property owners won't always be responsible for things that a reasonable person would have avoided. That includes things that one would expect to be present in a particular place. For example, a claimant may trip over a leaf rake on a lawn. It wouldn't be surprising to an ordinary person that gardening tools would exist there. Every person has a responsibility to be aware of their surroundings and make efforts to avoid dangerous conditions. Here, a reasonable person traversing a lawn would have been more careful to look out for the rake.
A Property Owner's Duty to Maintain Reasonably Safe Conditions
Depending on who is entering their property, owners may have a duty to reasonably ensure their guests' safety. This depends if the guest is a(n):
- Trespassing Adult
- Trespassing Child
The meanings and differences between these categories are explained in our article regarding an owner's duty to prevent injuries. For example, property owners have a duty to ensure the safety of children at play. Certain objects on a property might attract the interest of young kids. A property owner must ensure that swimming pools, trampolines, and other so-called "attractive nuisances" are secure. For instance, swimming pools must be securely covered and/or protected by a fence to prevent children from using them when unattended.
In general, an owner must act reasonably under the circumstances to prevent foreseeable harm to likely victims. This means property owners must take reasonable steps to ensure that their property is free from dangerous conditions that would cause a person to slip and fall. This reasonableness is often balanced against the care that the person who slipped and fell should have used. What follows are some guidelines that courts and insurance companies use when determining fault in slip-and-fall accidents.
Liability for Slip-And-Fall Accidents
If you've been injured in a slip-and-fall accident on someone else's property because of a dangerous condition, you may have a case. You'll likely need to be able to show either the property owner or an employee of that property owner:
- Should have known of the dangerous condition (This would be because another "reasonable" person in their position would have known about the dangerous condition and would have fixed it)
- Actually did know about the dangerous condition, but did not repair it
- Caused the dangerous condition
Many property owners are pretty good about the upkeep of their premises. For that reason, it's the first situation above that is most often litigated in slip-and-fall accidents. However, it is also the trickiest to prove because of the words "should have known." After presenting your evidence and arguments, it'll be up to the judge or jury. They'll have to decide whether the property owner should have known about the slippery steps or carpeting that caused you to fall. They will make this determination based on whether it was reasonably foreseeable that you would have been injured under the circumstances.
If you have a valid claim of negligence for a slip-and-fall injury, you'll want to work out the types of damages to allege. These include:
- Medical bills
- Lost wages
- Pain and suffering
To get a ballpark figure of what your case may be worth, take a look at FindLaw's damage estimate worksheet.
To show that a property owner is liable for the injuries you sustained in your slip-and-fall accident, you'll have to show the reasonableness of the property owner's actions. The following are some questions that you or your attorney will want to discuss before starting a case:
- How long had the defect been present before your accident? Let's say a roof over the stairwell had been leaking for the past three months. Given the long duration, it may be less reasonable for the owner to allow the leak to continue. Contrast this with a leak that had just started the night before, where the landlord was only waiting for the rain to stop in order to fix it.
- What kinds of daily cleaning activities does the property owner engage in? If the property owner claims that they are inspecting the property daily, what kind of proof can they show to support this claim?
- If your slip-and-fall accident involved tripping over something that was left on the floor or in another place where you tripped on it, was there a legitimate reason for that object to be there?
- If your slip-and-fall accident involved tripping over something that was left on the floor that once had a legitimate reason for being there, did the legitimate reason still exist at the time of your accident?
Carelessness, Clumsiness, and Comparative Negligence
A property owner has different ways to put up a defense to negligence claims. Most states follow the rule of comparative negligence when it comes to a plaintiff's contributory negligence. This means that if you somehow contributed to your own accident, your claim is weakened. Your award for your injuries and other damages may be lessened by the amount for which you were comparatively at fault. This percentage is determined by a judge or jury. An example of a situation where comparative fault might be in play could be an accident where you were talking on your cell phone and not paying attention to a warning sign.
There are some questions that you can ask yourself to estimate how likely it is you'll be found to be comparatively negligent:
- Did you have a legitimate reason for being on the property owner's premises when the accident happened? Should the owner have anticipated you?
- Would a person of reasonable caution in the same situation have noticed and avoided the dangerous condition? Would they have handled the condition in a way that would have lessened the chances of slipping and falling? An example of this could be if you were holding onto a handrail while going down icy stairs.
- Did the property owner erect a barrier or give a warning of the dangerous condition that led to your slip-and-fall accident?
- Were you engaging in any inherently dangerous activities that contributed to your slip-and-fall accident? Examples of this could be running around the edges of pools, texting while walking, jumping or skipping, and attempting to ice skate while in business shoes.
If you've been talking with an insurance company about a possible settlement for your injuries, you may encounter challenges. You'll probably be asked many questions that are similar to these. Although you won't have to prove to the insurance company that you were extremely careful, you'll probably have to show you weren't comparatively negligent.
Do You Have Slip-And-Fall Liability Questions? An Attorney Can Help
If you've been hurt in a slip-and-fall accident, you may want to contact an attorney as soon as possible. Personal injury law can be complicated, and dealing with insurance companies can be a pain. A personal injury lawyer can give you legal advice, sometimes through a free case evaluation.
Because of statutes of limitations, which limit the time a person has to bring an injury lawsuit, you should act quickly. If you think you have a claim, you may want to get in touch with an experienced local personal injury attorney as soon as possible. Having a fall accident lawyer on your side can greatly increase your chances of recovery.
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