Thousands of people are injured every day on property across the United States. The resulting slip and fall settlements and court awards add up to millions of dollars. If you were injured on someone else’s property, and can prove the four elements of premises liability, you can hold the owner liable for your damages.
Four Elements of a Slip and Fall Claim
- The injured person slipped, or tripped, and fell on the property in question.
- The property owner had a duty to protect the injured person from harm.
- The owner breached that duty, by allowing a dangerous condition to exist.
- The injured person suffered verifiable damages.
The property owner may not be the only party liable for a slip and fall injury. There can be multiple parties responsible for the same accident. In addition to the property owner, some of the liable parties might include:
- The property management company
- A tenant leasing, or sub-leasing, the property
- A contractor, or sub-contractor, working on the property
- Other agents and employees of the property owner
Example: Negligent Apartment Manager
During a cold February in Vermont, a water pipe broke in an apartment complex. It was an external pipe, so water leaked onto the sidewalk and froze. Several tenants told the property manager of the sidewalk’s icy condition. The manager kept saying he was aware of the problem and would address it.
The property manager fixed the broken pipe, but never removed the ice from the sidewalk. A few days later, a tenant named Sue stepped onto the sidewalk and immediately slipped on the ice. She fell and broke her arm.
In this case, Sue has separate, valid claims against the management company and the property owner. Whether the manager ever notified the property owner of the broken pipe doesn’t matter. The owner’s liability is imputed from his business relationship with the management company.
(Imputed means an individual is responsible for the negligence of someone under his control, even if the individual didn’t commit the negligent act himself.)
Duty of Care and Foreseeable Danger
In the broken pipe example, both the management company and the property owner had a duty of care to make the sidewalk safe for the public, especially their tenants.
Sue’s fall was clearly a foreseeable event, because icy sidewalks are inherently dangerous. A reasonable person should know that allowing a walkway to remain icy will sooner or later result in someone slipping, falling, and being injured.
Here’s a scenario demonstrating duty of care and foreseeable harm…
Example: Negligent Contractor
Bill was a young executive thinking of buying a new home. His real estate agent wanted to show him a model home under construction, and invited him to the site where it was being built. That day, one of the sub-contractors, a cement company, was laying down concrete for the model home’s sidewalk.
Although the cement looked dry, it wasn’t. There were no caution signs or pylons indicating the cement was still wet and dangerous. As Bill stepped onto the path leading to the front door, his foot got caught in the wet cement, causing him to fall and break his wrist.
In this example, there are multiple parties liable for Bill’s injuries:
- The property owner and developer
- The sub-contractor cement company
- The general contractor who hired the sub-contractor cement company
- The real estate agency
Was the accident foreseeable?
Real estate agents often bring prospective buyers to construction sites to view homes. A reasonable agent should expect that freshly poured cement and other potential hazards will exist at a building site. Further, a property owner should foresee that these hazards could cause injuries to visitors.
Bill would have separate, valid claims against each of the entities listed above. All of them had a legal responsibility to make sure visitors to the property were kept safe from foreseeable hazards. They all failed in their responsibility. In his claim, Bill could theoretically recover multiple slip and fall settlements from the liable parties.
You must be an invitee (business guest) or a licensee (social guest) to be able to recover compensation for your injuries. These are legal terms for those invited by the property owner (called the invitor) to come onto the property. That invitation is made for a mutual benefit, financial or otherwise.
Trespassers have no legal right to be on the property, and are typically unable to recover compensation for their injuries.
In the icy sidewalk example, the tenant (invitee) benefited from living in her apartment, and the property owner benefited from her rent. In the wet concrete example, the property owner benefited by showing his property to the prospective buyer (invitee). The buyer benefited by having the option to purchase a home.
Causation is the lynchpin that holds all the other elements of a claim together. It’s also the most difficult to prove. More slip and fall lawsuits are won or lost on causation issues than any other. An injured party may be able to prove property ownership, duty of care, and foreseeability, but if she can’t prove what actually caused the injury, she won’t have a strong case.
In the icy sidewalk example, if Sue was running instead of walking, and was drunk at the time, the actual cause of her slip and fall would be questioned. Did the property manager’s failure to remove the ice cause Sue to slip and fall, or was it because she was running while intoxicated?
The property owner and management company could show that although the walkway was slippery, dozens of people traversed it over a period of several days, and not a single person fell. They could maintain that Sue’s carelessness or intoxication was the actual cause of her fall.
When causation is an issue in a slip and fall claim, the degree of liability of each party must be determined. How much fault can be attributed to the property owner vs. the injured party? Slip and fall settlements are often based upon this type of comparative negligence.
There are several versions of comparative fault laws currently used in the United States:
Property owners (and their lawyers) will often try to prove the injured person contributed to their own injury in some way. They will compare their degree of fault to that of the injured party. The point is to show that both were partially responsible for the accident.
An owner will try to convince a jury that the injured party’s negligence was greater than his own. To avoid this, the injured party must exclude any evidence the property owner might offer relieving him of responsibility.
The outcome often relies on the instructions a judge gives a jury before they start deliberations. Common instructions read as follows:
If you (the jury) find the plaintiff’s (injured party’s) actions preceding her slip and fall wholly contributed to her injuries, then you must find for the defendant (property owner) and award the plaintiff nothing.”
If you find the plaintiff did not contribute to her injuries, and the defendant is solely responsible for them, then you must decide what amount of money the defendant should be ordered to pay the plaintiff.”
If you find the plaintiff’s actions preceding her slip and fall did contribute to her injuries, you must say by what percentage. Then you must discount the award you order the defendant to pay, by the percentage of the plaintiff’s comparative negligence.”
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