Many people are injured each year because they slip on a wet floor, tumble down a defective staircase, or trip on uneven ground. When a visitor slips and falls on somebody else's property and is injured, he or she may be able to bring a premises liability lawsuit against the property owner or occupant to recover damages. In most states, whether the visitor is able to recover will depend on the visitor's status on the property and on whether the property owner or occupant used reasonable care to prevent slips and falls on the property.
Generally, property owners and occupants owe a duty to use reasonable care to maintain any property under their control. This duty is usually owed to those on the property lawfully, such as a business' customers or social guests who have been invited. To meet the standard of care, the property owner or occupant will have to regularly check for spilled substances or uneven surfaces. In many states, this duty does not extend to trespassers.
In order to be held liable for a slip and fall in most states, a property owner or occupant (or an employee) must be found negligent. This means that the owner or occupant must have caused the spill or other hazardous surface, know of the hazardous surface and have done nothing about it, or should have known of the hazardous condition and failed to do anything about it.
The cases involving a property owner or occupant that "should have known" of a slippery surface can be the most challenging to prove. For example, in a slip and fall that occurs on a wet floor in a grocery store, a crucial issue will be how long the floor was wet. The longer the floor was wet, the more likely it is that the storeowner knew or should have known that the hazardous surface existed and failed to warn customers or otherwise guard against slip and falls. Unfortunately, in many cases, it is hard to determine how long the surface was wet. If you are injured in a slip and fall, it is a good idea to get the name and contact information of any witnesses, especially if they were present in the location over a long period and can give some idea of how long the hazardous surface existed.
If you are hurt in a slip and fall and aren't sure whether the owner or occupier of the place where you were hurt is likely to be found negligent, you may want to consider factors such as:
- How long the hazardous condition existed in a particular area;
- Whether the property owner had a regular routine to search for surfaces that needed cleaning;
- Whether there was a good reason for the surface to be in that condition, such as if the floor was being mopped;
- Whether there were warning signs that you missed; and
- Whether there was adequate lighting.
Defenses to a Slip and Fall Accident
A property owner or occupant cannot prevent every fall on the premises. They usually are not required to ensure a visitor's safety. Even when a property owner uses diligent care, it is possible for somebody to slip on black ice in front of an apartment complex or trip on a paver on the front lawn of a hospital. All visitors to someone else's property are required to use reasonable care, such as by watching where they are going, to avoid getting hurt.
One of the most common defenses to a slip and fall accident is that the plaintiff was not exercising reasonable care. Under the doctrine of comparative negligence, a plaintiff's recovery is reduced by his or her percentage of fault for the accident. For example, in the example above involving a grocery store slip and fall, if there was a yellow cone that said "warning" next to the spill, but you were distracted while looking up at a sale sign and slipped anyway, you may be found partially or wholly responsible for your fall. In a state that adheres to the doctrine of contributory negligence, even if a jury finds you only 1% at fault for not noticing the spill, you cannot recover anything.
Similarly, if you are walking in a place where you should not have been walking, even if you were not a trespasser, you may be considered comparatively negligent, and you may not be able to recover. For example, if you are running in a landscaped area in front of your dentist's office instead of a concrete path to kill time before your appointment and trip on a landscaping paver or a root, you may not be able to recover damages for your broken knee.