A slip and fall case arises when somebody slips or trips on premises belonging to somebody else, resulting in injury.
The law of slip and fall accidents defines when the person or business that owns or controls premises is liable for injuries that occur to somebody who is present on their land.
Although the term "slip and fall" may be used to describe accidents in which a person trips, as opposed to technically slipping, there is a distinction to be made between tripping and slipping. In most cases, the person claiming injury will fall to the ground, but it is possible for premises liability to arise when a person slips or trips and is injured without actually falling, as might occur if the person twists or overextends a joint.
Trip and fall incidents involve a trip, meaning that a person's foot comes into contact with an object or defective pavement, causing the person to fall. The cause of a trip and fall accident may include uneven pavement, a hole in the pavement, defective carpeting, an unexpected transition between floor surfaces, a hole in the ground, or similar hazards that hidden or difficult to detect.
Slip and fall incidents involve a person's foot losing traction, causing the person to fall. The cause of a slip-and-fall may include a wet surface, a slippery object or substance left on a floor surface, and the presence of ice or snow on the ground.
Slip and fall cases are based upon a theory of negligence, meaning that they allege that the person who owned or controlled the premises where the fall occurred failed to exercise reasonable care to protect the safety of others. The injured person must prove the following:
- Ownership or control: The defendant owned or controlled the premises upon which the injury occurred;
- Duty: The defendant had a duty to provide premises that were reasonably safe for the injured person, or to a group of people that included the injured person (such as customers of a store, where the injured person was shopping);
- Notice: The defendant knew about the condition that caused the injured person to fall, or reasonably should have been aware of that condition at the time of the accident;
- Dangerous condition: The condition that caused the fall was unreasonably dangerous under the circumstances; and
- Damages: That as a result of the fall, the person suffered an injury.
The facts of how an injury occurs can significantly affect liability. For example:
- If the owner of the premises knows that the floor will frequently be wet, as with a locker room or ferry boat, the premises owner should ensure that there is adequate drainage and that the floor covering is sufficiently slip-resistant.
- A step from one level of the floor to another may not be an issue during daylight, but factors of design and illumination can significantly affect its dangerousness: if not illuminated at night, or if a step is poorly placed such that people stepping around a corner or counter might not be able to see it before they lose their footing.
In many premises liability cases, it is argued that the owner or person in control of the premises is responsible for creating the condition, whether by virtue of action (such as spilling oil on the floor of a garage) or inaction (such as failing to properly maintain and repair premises, creating areas that are slippery or allowing flooring or pavement surfaces to become uneven).
Common defenses to slip or trip and fall claims include the following:
- Obvious danger: Also known as "open and obvious danger". the allegedly dangerous condition would have been observed and avoided by a similarly situated person who was exercising reasonable care;
- Governmental immunity: If the owner or occupant of the premises where the injury occurs is a unit of government, then the government may have a full or partial defense to the injury claim based upon laws that restrict when a government may be sued.
- Lack of notice: The defendant may admit that a dangerous condition existed, but argue that there was insufficient notice, insufficient time to respond, or both, such that even with the exercise of due care they did not have the opportunity to correct the problem before the injury occurred.
- Assumption of risk: The injured person knew or should have known that an injury could occur if they used the premises, and accepted that risk such that the defendant should not be responsible for the injury;
- Carelessness by the injured person: The person was not paying proper attention to the surroundings, and would have avoided injury with proper attention. For example, the defendant might allege that a person who slipped near a swimming pool was violating a "no running" rule, or that a person who tripped over a step was focusing on sending a text message instead of watching where he or she was going.
- Warning notices: Although a hazardous condition existed, the landlord provided reasonable notice of the condition such that a person exercising reasonable care would not have suffered an injury.
- Trespass: State law may reduce the liability of the person who owns or controls premises when the injured person is unlawfully present on the property. State law may also provide a different duty of care for a person who enters the premises as a social guest, as compared to a person who enters for the purposes of conducting business on the premises.
The lack of notice is a common defense to slip and fall claims in stores and restaurants, where a spilled beverage or dropped item might create a hazard that cannot reasonably be detected or corrected before it is encountered by another customer. Many slip and fall cases involve the introduction of extensive evidence to try to prove when a hazardous condition arose and whether the defendant had reasonable notice of the problem and time to respond before the injury occurred, as well as whether the defendant's policies and practices to inspect for and respond to potential hazards was reasonable and sufficient.
Premises owners will often put out signs to warn people of a potential hazard, such as placing caution signs near a spilled item that has not yet been cleaned up, or to warn that a recently mopped floor may be slippery. A premises liability case may introduce evidence that a defendant who had a duty to warn failed to fulfill that duty, whether through the absence of warning or through inadequate warnings.
Defendants to slip and fall cases frequently argue that a hazard was known or obvious, such that it should have been avoided by any person exercising reasonable care. For example, if a person trips over a concrete curb, painted yellow, at the end of a parking space in broad daylight, the defendant is apt to argue that any reasonable person would have seen the curb and either stepped over it or walked around it.
The assumption of risk defense may relate to the nature of the premises. For example,
- If you step onto the ice in a skating rink, you should know that the surface will be slippery and, more to the point, it would not be much of a skating rink if the surface were not slippery.
- If the entry to an apartment complex is covered with ice and snow after a landlord has had reasonable time to clear the entryway, the landlord may be liable for a slip and fall, but if there is a second entrance that is clear of ice and snow it may be possible for the landlord to defend against a claim by arguing that the person claiming injury should have used the other entrance.
Many slip and fall cases involve a person slipping on ice or snow, whether on a sidewalk or parking lot, in the stairs, ramp, or entryway into a building, or inside a building where others tracked snow and ice into the premises and created a slippery surface inside.
State laws can vary significantly in relation to whether and when homeowners are responsible to clear snow and ice from a sidewalk in front of their homes, or on paths leading from a public sidewalk to their doors, but landlords and business owners are normally required to clear ice and snow within a reasonable time after a snowfall ends, and also to ensure that runoff from melting snow drains properly so that it does not re-freeze into a dangerous sheet of ice.
The manner in which snow is removed can create potential liability. For example, snow that is plowed into a berm may result in water runoff that freezes into ice, or that may impede the ability of motorists to see other vehicles whose presence is concealed by a high berm. Liability for the negligent removal of snow may arise even in situations where the premises owner would not have been liable for injuries had the snow not been cleared.
When an injury occurs in a rental property, questions may arise as to whether the landlord is liable for an injury to a tenant or to the guest of a tenant.
When an injury occurs in a common area, open to all tenants, the analysis of liability is essentially the same as with any other slip and fall case: Did the landlord have a duty to the injured person, did the landlord know of the potentially dangerous condition that caused the fall, and did the landlord have a reasonable opportunity to correct the condition before the injury occurred?
When an injury occurs in a part of the premises that is under the exclusive control of the tenant, such as the interior of an apartment or the private yard of a home that is rented by one tenant, the tenant's exclusive control may remove the landlord's liability for an injury that occurs on the premises. However, if the landlord was aware of dangerous conditions that the landlord had a duty to repair, such as rotting stairs on the steps to the front door, a landlord may be liable based upon the landlord's failure to reasonably inspect and repair the premises.
When injury occurs on somebody else's premises, particularly injury from a hazard that is hidden or difficult to detect, the injured person will benefit from consulting a personal injury lawyer about possible claims and to anticipate possible defenses that the premises owner or person in possession may raise.