Property Owners' Responsibilities in Slip and Fall Settlement Cases



Each year in the United States thousands of premises liability claims are filed. Many are successful and result in substantial slip and fall settlement amounts. But there are just as many that fail. Those victims are left frustrated and confused, sometimes with barely enough money to cover their expenses.

Too often the first thought of someone injured by a slip and fall is, "How much is my case worth?" when it should be, "Do I have the legal basis for a case?"

Before deciding whether enough evidence exists to support a legitimate slip and fall case, you must understand the property owner's responsibilities and the legal requirements needed to establish your case. They aren't difficult. All it takes to understand and apply these requirements is some common sense and logical thinking.

Legal Issues in Premises Liability Claims

Duty of Care

Property owners have a duty to protect those invited onto their property (premises). A duty of care is the responsibility a property owner has to keep his premises free from dangerous conditions which could injure those invited onto the premises.

An invitee is a person who has a legal right to be on someone else's premises. The invitation can be made formally, informally, or may be implied. In public places like supermarkets, malls, restaurants, etc, invitees are there by an implied invitation. In most cases they don't need a formal invite.

A trespasser is not an invitee. In almost all cases he won't be able to file a claim for injuries he suffered on someone else's premises.

A property owner must do everything within reason to protect those legally on her property from injury. Reasonable action includes a measure of foreseeability, meaning the property owner must know or should know if a dangerous condition exists. If it does exist, then she must take the reasonable action necessary to protect her invitees.

  • Reasonable: The actions a property owner must take to protect her invitees from danger must be reasonable in nature and scope. Reasonable actions are those accepted as normal and appropriate by other property owners in similar situations and circumstances.

  • Foreseeable: In a slip and fall settlement case, foreseeable means the property owner knew or should have known that dangerous conditions existed on her premises and that those conditions might lead to injuries.

Contributing Negligence

Contributory negligence is an action or omission made by a person that contributed to her own injuries. The higher the degree of contributory negligence, the less liability for the injury will be assigned to the premises owner. This can lessen or even totally void a slip and fall settlement award.

There isn't a rule book you can refer to when trying to determine if a premises owner properly exercised his duty of care; if his actions were reasonable or foreseeable under the circumstances; or if the victim contributed to his own injuries. Instead, the facts of each case must prove or disprove negligence. It's best to review some examples and get a feel for the issues involved.

Example: Pothole in a Parking Lot

Immediately after learning of a pothole in his restaurant's parking lot, the restaurant owner went outside and cordoned off the area with pylons and wooden barriers. He strung yellow caution tape all around the edge of the pothole. The owner called the asphalt company to come out as quickly as possible to repair the pothole. They told the owner they would be there to repair the pothole late that evening, but never showed.

Sometime overnight, a group of teenagers came by and removed the pylons, barriers, and tape, leaving the pothole fully exposed. The newspaper delivery boy came early the next morning. He was late delivering his papers that day, so he was running as fast as he could to each customer on his route. As the delivery boy ran up to the door, he slipped and fell into the pothole. He broke his leg and herniated a disk in his back.

He filed a case against the restaurant owner alleging negligence due to the owner's breach of duty to protect him from dangerous conditions (not marking or repairing the pothole). The restaurant owner's attorneys responded by denying the existence of any breach of duty, stating the owner had done everything reasonable to correct the problem.

The Legal Questions:

  • Did the restaurant owner properly exercise his duty of care to protect the delivery boy from a dangerous pothole on his premises?

  • Were the restaurant owner's actions to protect the delivery boy reasonable under the circumstances?

  • Was the possibility of injuries to the delivery boy foreseeable under the circumstances?

  • Did the newspaper delivery boy contribute to his injuries by running and possibly being careless? If he hadn't been running would he have been able to avoid the pothole?

The Legal Arguments:

In this case there is a very strong argument in favor of the restaurant owner. The owner did exercise the proper duty of care by taking reasonable actions to protect the delivery boy from danger. There wasn't much more this restaurant owner or any other owner under similar circumstances could have done to protect the boy from injury.

It wasn't foreseeable that thieves would come in the night to steal the protective materials set out around the pothole. Nor was it foreseeable the asphalt company wouldn't have come that evening as agreed.

In this slip and fall settlement case, the issue of whether or not the delivery boy's running contributed to his injuries probably would not be a consideration, as so much other evidence weighed heavily in favor of the premises owner.

Example: Water on Supermarket Floor

On her way home from work one evening, a woman stopped by a local grocery store to pick up some fresh vegetables for dinner. The supermarket had an automated misting machine in the produce section. It sprays fresh water on the vegetables at specific intervals during the day to keep them fresh. An employee comes by once every three hours to mop up any excess mist.

Several days earlier, the misting machine began to leak. The leak worsened each day, leaving more and more water pooling on the floor. The supermarket owner knew about the problem and had called the repair company to come out. Three days later, they still hadn't come to fix the machine. Employees continued to mop on the three-hour schedule.

The last mopping had been done about an hour before the woman customer walked down the produce aisle. Suddenly and without warning, her legs went out from under her. She slipped and fell on the water, suffering a broken wrist and a concussion. The woman pursued a slip and fall settlement to compensate for her injuries.

The Legal Questions:

  • Did the supermarket owner properly exercise his duty of care to protect the customer from dangerous conditions on his premises?

  • Were the supermarket owner's actions reasonable under the circumstances?

  • Was the possibility of injuries to the customer foreseeable under the circumstances?

  • Did the woman contribute to her injuries in any manner?

The Legal Arguments:

In this case, the argument in favor of the injured woman is very strong. Evidence can prove that the supermarket owner did not exercise the proper duty of care. He failed to take reasonable action to protect his customer from danger.

Knowing the machine was leaking, the owner should have increased the frequency of mop-ups. He also should have cordoned off the area and moved the vegetables further down so the woman wouldn't have had to walk near the water. It was entirely foreseeable that less frequent mop-ups and a failure to cordon off the area would likely lead to a customer falling and being injured.

There is no evidence of contributory negligence. The woman didn't do anything to contribute to her own injuries. There wasn't any evidence of her running, wearing improper shoes, etc. And even if she was, her negligence would be heavily outweighed by the negligence of the supermarket owner.

Remember, slip and fall claims are wholly dependent upon establishing a premises owner's negligence. Proving negligence requires evidence the owner did not do everything reasonable to protect the injured person from harm.

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