The overabundance of parking lots and parking garages has transformed the American landscape. These structures give people easy access to shopping malls, apartments, office buildings, schools, and airports. Unfortunately, along with the growth of these massive structures there are a corresponding number of parking lot accidents and injuries.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), one out of every five car accidents occurs in parking garages and parking lots. Whether you’re hurt in a parking lot or garage, your legal rights remain the same. If someone else’s negligence causes your injury, they’re responsible, or liable, for your damages. Damages can include medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.
Parking Garage and Lot Owners’ Duty of Care
Property owners have a legal duty of care (obligation) to keep their premises reasonably safe. This includes making regular inspections to identify and repair dangerous conditions and defects. It’s important to understand the term “reasonable.” Reasonable means the garage and lot owners don’t have to keep their premises completely safe from all possible harm. That’s practically impossible and an overwhelming obligation.
Parking garages and parking lots are usually made of concrete and asphalt. Because of constantly changing weather conditions, shifting of the earth, and normal wear and tear, parking surfaces are subject to cracking.
The courts have determined it’s unfair to hold parking lot owners liable every time someone stumbles and falls. It’s nearly impossible for an owner to discover every newly formed crack, pothole, or dangerous condition. For an owner to be held liable, the danger must be apparent during regular inspections, or the owner must be given notice of the danger. The owner must also be given a reasonable amount of time to repair the dangerous condition once they know about it.
This doesn’t mean these property owners escape liability for every parking lot injury. When a crack, pothole or other dangerous condition is large enough to be easily seen, or when an employee or another person reports the danger, the courts will usually hold the owners liable for injuries sustained. This same legal basis holds for broken stairwell banisters, burned-out lights, debris, slippery substances, etc.
Common Causes of Parking Garage Accidents & Parking Lot Injuries
According to a NHTSA study (page 23), each year, more than 9,000 pedestrians are injured or killed in parking lots and garages. These injuries and fatalities occurred because of driver inattention or recklessness. Many pedestrians have a false sense of security in parking structures. Many drivers ignore stop or yield signs, believing the signs are there more as suggestions than actual commands.
Pavement dangers – slip and falls
Slip and falls are the most commonly reported parking lot injuries. They result from:
– Cracked and uneven pavement and potholes
– Debris, oil, and other slippery substances
– Weather conditions such as ice, snow, and rain
– Damaged, cracked, and dislocated wheel stops
Poor lighting is a contributing factor in trip and fall injuries and criminal acts. Shopping malls, schools, and businesses are frequently open during evening hours and sometimes late into the night. Most airports are open 24 hours a day. Insufficient lighting in their parking garages can mask potholes, debris, and cracked pavement. Poor lighting also gives criminals places to hide.
Inadequate and confusing signage
Ineffectively placed stop, turn, and yield signs are an invitation for chaos. So is inadequate signage. When hundreds, even thousands of pedestrians and drivers come in close contact with each other in confined areas, the probability of pedestrian injuries skyrockets. Not only are the drivers liable for negligent driving, but the property owners are equally responsible for their poor signage.
Damaged and nonexistent stairwell banisters
Individual states, counties, cities, and townships have their own building codes. Some require parking garages to have stairwell banisters. When banisters break, or they don’t exist, individuals can slip, trip and fall. Because most parking garage stairs are concrete composites, falling in a stairwell often results in serious injuries to the head, face, hands, and wrists.
Inadequate security personnel
Although not normally a legal requirement, hiring trained personnel to patrol large parking complexes is expected. When property owners make substantial profits each year, the courts are hard-pressed not to find them liable when visitors are injured. Trained security personnel deter crime and can respond quickly to emergencies. They can also report dangerous conditions that could cause injuries.
Wheel stops are those abutments found in front of your car as you pull into a parking space. They can pose a danger when cracked pieces of cement fall off onto the pavement. When misaligned, it’s easy for a visitor to overlook them and trip and fall. Visitors have no reasonable expectation a wheel stop will be in their direct path.
Proving Your Injury Claim
If you’re hurt in a parking garage or parking lot, it’s up to you to prove your claim. Just because you’re injured doesn’t mean the property owners are liable. The courts call it your burden of proof. To complete your injury claim successfully, you have to prove the garage or lot owner knew, or should have known, the dangerous condition existed and failed to address the danger within a reasonable time.
The “prudent person” test
Proving negligence is a bit tricky. The courts have said if a dangerous condition is so obvious as to deter a “prudent” (careful) person from putting himself at risk, then you should have readily discerned the danger’s existence and avoided it. In other words, if the pothole was big enough, you probably should have seen it and avoided it.
No-fault medical payments
Many commercial property owners carry a form of insurance you might find in your homeowner’s policy. It’s comparable to a no-fault provision that says if you’re hurt there’s no requirement of proving negligence. In many cases, to avoid costly insurance investigations and lawsuits, property owners’ insurance companies will quickly pay up to a certain limit, usually between $1,000 – $3,000, to cover medical expenses for an injured visitor.
In these cases, all you need to do is establish the injury took place in the parking garage or parking lot, and that you incurred medical bills. This no-fault medical payment insurance won’t cover your lost wages or pain and suffering.
If your injuries are more serious and you decide to pursue an insurance claim, you need evidence of the property owner’s negligence. Here’s how to get it:
Most parking garages and lots have one form or another of surveillance cameras. They record parking garage accidents, parking lot injuries, and criminal activity. In most cases, property owners won’t voluntarily give you the footage unless you file a lawsuit and your attorney issues a subpoena duces tecum – an order to produce documents.
Fortunately, when the insurance company investigates your injury claim, there’s a very high likelihood they’ll examine the footage. Then, the surveillance cameras will work to support your version of events.
Photographs and video
As soon as possible, take photos and video of the dangerous condition that caused your injury. Strike while the iron is hot, so to speak. The sooner you photographically document the scene, the less chance the property owner has to cover it up. It’s better to use a digital camera, but if you don’t have one, your cell phone camera is fine.
Remember, it’s likely the insurance company will try to say the dangerous condition wasn’t discoverable during regular inspections, was too insignificant to cause your injuries, or that you were negligent in failing to observe an obvious danger. Your evidence must refute these claims.
Bring a measuring tape. If you don’t have one, use any other object you can place near the condition to show its size. If your injury was a result of a broken stairwell banister, snow, ice, or other slippery substance, make sure you record it as distinctly as possible, from variety of different angles.
Witness statements are invaluable. The law takes your opinion of negligence for granted. Not so for witnesses. If at the time of your injury a Good Samaritan helped you, ask if she would serve as a witness. Although most people don’t want to get involved, maybe you can persuade one or more onlookers to help.
Don’t worry about notarized statements or sworn affidavits. They’re only necessary if you go to trial and someone disputes the authenticity of the statement. That’s not likely to happen. Instead, grab any piece of paper you can find and ask the witnesses to jot down what they saw, especially the existence of the dangerous condition and how it injured you.
For example, let’s say a witness was walking behind you down a parking garage stairwell. The stairs were made of concrete and covered with ice. The witness saw you slip on the icy steps and tumble to the bottom. While helping you up, she called 911 and requested emergency assistance because she saw blood all over your face and hands.
Ask her to pull out any piece of paper and write down her name, contact information and a description of how she saw you slip and fall on the icy steps. Ask her to sign and date her statement. If there’s time, use your cell phone’s audio function to record her statement.
No damages = No settlement
The final integral piece of evidence is proof of your damages. If you don’t have damages, you don’t have a case, no matter how upset you are with the property owner or management. You need to provide the insurance company with medical records detailing your injuries and treatment. Without proof of medical treatment and its costs, you won’t receive compensation.
Example: No proof of injuries
You were in a parking garage elevator. While on its way up, it suddenly and violently stopped. The force of the abrupt stop knocked you down. As you fell, the contents of your shopping bag flew all over the elevator floor. There were witnesses in the elevator who also fell. After gathering yourself and the contents of your shopping bag, you realize you didn’t suffer any visible injuries, but the incident shook you up.
You’re sure the parking garage owner was negligent. That elevator never should have stopped like that. You immediately report the event to security and make your way to the garage manager’s office. There you explain what occurred and inform them you intend to file a negligence claim. When the garage manager asked if you were injured, you said no, but you were quite upset about the whole event. You said it “traumatized” you.
When the garage owner’s insurance company contacted you, someone took your statement. You told them you also had witness statements and demanded $5,000 to compensate you for your “emotional distress.” After considering your claim, the insurance company denied it.
In this case the insurance company was probably correct. Without physical injuries or evidence from a psychologist or psychiatrist about your trauma, you don’t have a legitimate injury claim. You don’t have any real damages. While the entire event may have upset you, that’s not enough.
Medical records, bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and lost wages
In the event you’re hurt, be sure to gather all your medical bills and treatment records. If paramedics took you to the ER, get a copy of their patient transfer report. At the hospital, ask for a copy of your admitting chart and the treating physician’s notes, including your diagnosis and prognosis.
If your injuries didn’t require emergency care, you must see your own physician immediately. The longer you wait, the better the chance the insurance company will say something else injured you between the time of the accident and seeing your doctor. Lack of immediate treatment can effectively break the link you need to tie your injury to the dangerous condition.
Gather copies of your medical charts and bills to date. Make copies of receipts for medicines, crutches, etc. If you had to miss work, ask your employer to write a letter detailing the amount of wages you’ve lost to date because of your injuries. Include lost vacation and sick days, and any bonuses or other compensation you lost due to the injury.
Dealing With the Insurance Adjuster
After your injury, you need to obtain the name and phone number of the parking lot or garage owner’s insurance company. When you first speak with them, you’ll receive a claim number. Use it as a reference for future communications. If you filed an incident report at the time of the accident (you should have), the insurance company will likely have a claims adjuster call you within a few days.
It’s likely the insurance adjuster will ask you for a recorded statement. Although there are several trains of thought on this requirement, as long as you stick to the facts, there’s no reason to object. Refusing may slow down the process of your injury claim. Just make sure you don’t refer to your own negligence, if any, or they may try to lessen the amount of your settlement.
Be sure to offer the adjuster copies of your medical bills to date, photographs and video, witness statements, and current proof of lost wages. Don’t agree to settle the claim until you finish your treatment and have a total amount for all your damages.
Do you need an attorney?
If your injuries are soft tissue, you can probably handle your own claim. Soft tissue injuries can include muscle, tendon or ligament sprains, minor burns, cuts, and bruises. These are usually non-permanent injuries that don’t require hospitalization.
If, though, your injuries are the more serious hard injuries, you need an experienced personal injury attorney. Hard injuries include broken bones, scarring, second- or third-degree burns, head injuries, and other injuries requiring hospitalization.
See an example of a parking lot injury demand letter here.
Attorney Seeking Damages for a Fall in a Parking Lot – In this court case the plaintiff and her injury attorney are seeking damages after the plaintiff fell on ice in a parking lot outside a pizza parlor.
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