What You Need To Know About Causation in Slip and Fall Injury Claims

You’ll have to show that a property owner caused your slip and fall injury to get fair compensation. Learn how to prove causation in a premises liability claim.

Fall-related injuries, including slips, trips, and other types, lead to over 8 million emergency room visits a year and are the leading cause of injury-related missed workdays.¹

Not every fall-related injury entitles the injury victim to compensation. However, if you slip and fall while on someone else’s property, the property owner could be responsible. The owner may also have to compensate you for any injuries.

Seeking injury compensation usually means dealing with the property owner’s insurance company. To collect that money, you’ll need to prove not only that you fell, but also that the property owner caused the accident.

Fall Injuries and Premises Liability

When a business or a government agency opens up a property to employees, guests, and customers, they take on a responsibility to keep that property safe. This responsibility emerges from a tricky area of the law called premises liability.

Private property owners have the same responsibility when it comes to invited guests, workers, and other legitimate visitors to the property.

Many property owners are mindful of that responsibility and put in the effort to keep their properties uncluttered and well-maintained. However, there are always exceptions.

Some owners may ignore the upkeep of their business or deliberately decide against making necessary changes. As a result, poorly maintained areas and dangerous obstacles can cause slips, falling objects, and other hazards that injure people, sometimes severely.

Under premises liability laws, simply suffering an injury in a slip and fall accident is not enough to qualify for compensation from the owner of the property or store.

To receive compensation for an injury, you must prove four elements:

  1. A hazard on the property caused your fall
  2. The incident resulted in your injury
  3. The property owner could or should have done something about the hazard
  4. The owner failed to correct the hazard that caused your fall

We call the first element causation. Causation can be difficult to prove in slip and fall claims unless you know how insurance adjusters and legal professionals determine blame for injury accidents.

Causation is important because it shows a connection between a hazardous object or a property owner’s negligence and your injuries.

Negligence is a legal term that means a person or entity failed to act as a reasonable party would under a similar situation. In a slip and fall case, a property owner is negligent if they knew of a danger but failed to fix it or warn others to stay away from it.

The owner is negligent even if they didn’t know of a hazard on the property, but should have known, such as through routine inspections.

Causation shows that it was a particular box, spill, or cracked surface that resulted in your harm. Causation can also establish that it was an owner’s failure to remove a hazard that led to your injuries.

By proving that an owner caused your injuries, you’re showing the court or an insurance company that the property owner should compensate you for what you’ve experienced.

Causation has two parts: Actual cause and proximate cause. Victims have to prove both in any slip and fall case.

What is Actual Cause?

Actual cause refers to the factual cause of an accident. It’s the thing that triggers an injury, like an icy pavement, a cluttered pathway, or the rotted floorboards that led to an incident.

But-For Test to Determine Cause

The but-for test is one way to determine if a property owner was the actual cause of a slip and fall injury. The but-for question is used to determine causation in many types of injury cases.

The but-for test asks:

“But for the property owner’s conduct (or hazardous condition) would you have gotten hurt?”

If the answer is “yes,” then the property owner’s conduct (or hazardous condition) was not the actual cause of your injury.

If the answer is “no,” then the property owner’s conduct (or hazardous condition) was the actual cause of your injury.

Example: Basket Is the Actual Cause of a Shoulder Injury

Lisa walks into a supermarket. An employee recently vacuumed the entryway. While cleaning up, he accidentally knocked over a stack of shopping baskets. Lisa doesn’t see the hazard and trips on one of the baskets. As a result, she falls and dislocates her shoulder.

Here, the basket is the actual cause of Lisa’s injury. But for the basket on the floor, would Lisa have gotten hurt in the supermarket? The answer is “no,” and the “but-for” test is satisfied.

Example: Restaurant Excluded as Actual Cause of a Knee Sprain

Joe is walking in a parking lot. It’s winter, and there is a fast-food restaurant at one end of the lot. A convenience store is next to it. Unbeknownst to Joe, a person bought a bottle of water from the store, spilled it in the parking lot, then the water froze into a patch of ice.

Joe doesn’t see the ice, slips on it, and sprains his knee. He blames the restaurant for his injury.

Here, while it’s true the ice caused Joe’s slip, the restaurant was not the actual cause of Joe’s injury.

But for the fast-food restaurant’s conduct, would Joe have gotten hurt? The answer is, “yes.”

Someone purchased water from the convenience store, and not the restaurant. Further, that person spilled the water, and low temperatures took care of the rest. The fast-food chain was not responsible for Joe’s fall or his injuries.

Not all but-for tests work well for slip-and-fall claims. Sometimes more than one factor contributes to a person’s injuries.

Consider an incident where an intoxicated patron named Frank is injured in a fall after slipping on a spilled drink in Curly’s Tavern. There’s no question that Frank slipped on a spilled drink. The tavern staff should have cleaned up the spill sooner.

However, it’s not accurate to say that but-for the tavern’s conduct, Frank wouldn’t have been injured. 

The facts reveal that Frank was so intoxicated, he was stumbling before he slipped on the wet spot. If he weren’t so drunk, he probably wouldn’t have crashed to the floor after a small slip.

The but-for test is not definitive in cases like Frank’s.

Substantial Factor Test for Causation

Because the but-for test may not give a clear determination of cause, some states use a substantial-factor test as an alternative when determining the actual cause in personal injury cases.

The substantial-factor test for slip and fall claims asks:

“Was the property owner’s conduct a substantial factor in causing the victim’s injury?”

If the answer is “yes,” then there is an actual cause. If “no,” then no actual cause.

A claims adjuster investigates the evidence to analyze the facts of your injury claim. Likewise, if you file a lawsuit against the property owner, a judge or jury answers the question by analyzing the evidence presented in your case.

Example: Restaurant Conduct Not a Substantial Factor in Sprained Knee

In the last example, Joe slipped on a patch of ice and sprained his knee. The ice formed because someone spilled water they bought from a nearby convenience store. A restaurant is next to the convenience store.

Joe tries to file an injury claim against the restaurant’s insurance company. The accident happened in a state that uses a substantial-factor test to determine causation.

The insurance company will rightfully deny the claim because, under the test, the fast-food restaurant’s conduct was not a substantial factor in Joe’s fall. The restaurant wasn’t a factor at all because it didn’t sell the water that ultimately caused the injury.

What is Proximate Cause?

Legal cause, better known as Proximate Cause, focuses on foreseeability. An emphasis on foreseeability in a slip and fall claim means that property owners are only thought to have proximately caused an injury if they could have predicted that their actions would result in the harm caused.

Example: Homeowner Not the Proximate Cause of Mail Carrier’s Injuries

Jane is at home, raking wet leaves. She forms a pile of leaves on the ground near her home’s front door. The leaves don’t block access to the door since there’s a gravel path from her driveway to the door.

Jane doesn’t immediately pick the leaves up. A week later, the leaves are still in a pile on her lawn. During this time, water from the wet leaves seeps down and eventually out onto the grass surrounding the pile.

A mail carrier goes to deliver a package at Jane’s door. Rather than walk along the gravel path, he walks through her front yard. As he walks past the pile of leaves, he slips on the wet grass, falls, and badly hurts his lower back.

The mail carrier eventually files a claim with Jane’s insurance company. The insurance adjuster denies the injury claim on the grounds of causation.

Here, Jane was the actual cause of the carrier’s injuries. But-for her conduct, would the person have slipped? The answer is, “No.” Was Jane a substantial factor in causing the injuries. Yes. The water would never have seeped onto the grass if Jane hadn’t raked the wet leaves into a pile and failed to pick them up.

But Jane’s conduct was not the proximate cause of the accident. A reasonable person couldn’t foresee someone slipping from a pile of leaves that weren’t blocking the main route to the home. Jane couldn’t have predicted the ultimate consequences of her actions.

Because Jane couldn’t have foreseen anyone walking across her grass to reach the front door, she did not proximately cause the mail carrier’s injuries.

Intervening Causes Can Change Everything

An intervening cause is something that happens after a property owner acted, and helped cause the victim’s injuries. In many slip and fall cases, the intervening cause will remove blame from the property owner.

Imagine a case where a grocery store clerk puts up a sign warning of a wet floor while he goes to get a mop. If a distracted customer lets her young child walk off with the wet floor sign, the next person to come along could easily slip and fall on the wet floor. The child’s action is an intervening cause of the injuries to the person who fell.

Grocery stores can be liable for injuries caused by falls on a wet floor if the store knew about the wet area and failed to clean it up or warn customers with a wet floor sign.  The unauthorized removal of the wet floor sign was an intervening cause that removes the blame from the store.

An intervening cause can work to completely or partially remove a property owner’s proximate cause for a fall injury.

Gathering Evidence to Prove Cause

If you want to receive compensation for your injuries, you’ll need to reach out to the company or homeowner you believe is responsible for causing your injuries.  Most of the time, you’ll be directed to the property owner’s insurance company.

Whether you’re dealing with a homeowner’s insurance company or a corporate liability insurance company, your claim won’t survive if it lacks a showing of causation. You must be ready to show both actual and proximate cause.

Begin gathering important evidence immediately after a slip and fall and throughout your injury treatment and recovery. Look for evidence to prove that the property owner is truly responsible for your injuries.

Where to Get Important Evidence

Evidence of causation can take many forms, but photographic evidence and witness statements are often the most powerful.

Photos and Video: Taking photographs of the ice, the obstruction, or whatever hazard that led to your injury is a great start. You can go further and document the area around the slip and fall. For example, taking pictures and videos of other broken and neglected areas on the property can help show the owner’s general lack of maintenance.

Don’t be afraid to return to the site of your accident after it occurred to take more photos or videos (unless the site owner has revoked your invitation).

If you do return to the scene of the accident, pay attention as to whether the property owner took any corrective measures since the accident happened. If the area does look different, note the differences, and take pictures of them. These changes can show that the owner knew an object or situation posed a risk to begin with.

Detailed Notes:  Make detailed notes while the events are fresh in your mind. Write down every detail of the circumstance leading up to your injury, how you were injured, and what happened after that. Include everything you saw and heard.

If the property owner or an employee says something like “I’m sorry! I was supposed to clean that up and got called to help in the back,” that’s a “statement against interest” that can prove causation.

Witness Statements: If you can get written or video statements from witnesses who saw your accident and can describe how a hazard led to your fall, that’s great too. Witnesses can help prove that an accident happened. This means they can help show causation.

Gathering witnesses, though, can be a bit of a delicate process. You need to get their names and contact information and confirm they saw something useful. However, you don’t want to become too friendly with them. Talk to each witness briefly, as soon after your injury as possible, and focus on getting full statements later.

Additional Evidence: Medical reports, police reports, and incident reports are also useful for evidencing causation. Make copies of all reports. Keep the original in your accident file with other important paperwork.

When you receive a report, make a copy and review it thoroughly. Highlight on the copy those lines that directly speak to the cause of your accident. If you see any misleading or inaccurate bits of information in a report, communicate this information in writing to whoever created the report. Keep a copy of your letter or email in your accident file.

An Attorney Can Help Your Claim Succeed

Even if you don’t plan on pursuing your injury claim all the way to a courtroom, a local attorney with experience in the area of slip and fall injuries can be especially helpful.

Severe injury claims should always be handled by a personal injury attorney to maximize your compensation. But even if you’ve fully recovered from your injuries, you might still need a good attorney to get any traction with the insurance company.

Proximate and actual cause are just a few of the sticky legal concepts that may come up while you pursue a financial recovery for your injury. Your attorney can gather evidence of causation you can’t get without a subpoena.

Injury attorneys know how to go after critical evidence like the store’s video footage on the day you were hurt, copies of building code violations, and prior incident reports about the hazard that caused your fall.

Most personal injury attorneys work on a contingency fee basis and offer free consultations to slip and fall victims. Your attorney doesn’t get paid until they settle your injury claim or win your case in court. It costs nothing to find out what a skilled attorney can do for you.

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Dustin Reichard, Esq. is an experienced attorney with 20 years of work in the legal field. He’s admitted to the Illinois State Bar and the Washington State Bar. Dustin has worked in the areas of medical malpractice, wrongful death, product liability, slip and falls, and general liability. Dustin began his legal career as a JAG... Read More >>