Slip and Fall Cases
In our sample case study, Kim visits Ling’s Market on a rainy day and injures her back after slipping in some accumulated water on the floor. The manager of Ling’s Market was aware of the weather, but neglected to post any Wet Floor signs. Can Ling’s Market be held liable for Kim’s injured back?
Every year, over two million people in the United States go to a hospital complaining of “slip and fall” injuries; meanwhile, the National Floor Safety Institute places the cost of fraudulent “slip and fall” negligence suits at over eight million dollars a day (Nolo, 2012). “Slip and fall” injuries are often not trivial; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over a million Americans suffer from fall-related injuries a year (mostly hip fractures and broken bones, knee and back damage, serious contusions and other trauma), and this statistic includes over seventeen thousand fatalities (Shute, 2010). A “slip and fall” accident victim will typically have finances-straining medical expenses and she or he can also lose wages due to being forced to recuperate in a hospital or at home, rather than being able to work at his or her regular job.
The burden of proof required for a “slip and fall” case remains daunting because of the number of attempted fraudulent claims, and many attorneys shy away from “slip and fall” suits unless the plaintiff’s injuries are both severe and obvious, and unless the defendant’s failure to provide a safe environment is also inarguable. Property owners typically try to argue that the defendant’s own carelessness is to blame for his or her fall and subsequent injuries and that they were reasonably careful and aware of their customers’ safety. The plaintiff’s lawyer(s) must then prove that the property owner was, in fact, negligent and allowed a hazard to exist without posting adequate barriers and warnings, that the plaintiff exercised a reasonable amount of due diligence and caution, and that the plaintiff’s complaints are valid and severe enough to merit compensation from the defendant. In Kim’s case, if she slipped on slushy snow on a public sidewalk during a snowstorm, the property owner could argue that this was an “act of Nature” and not something they should be expected to be able to prevent (Shute, 2010); however, if Kim slipped on black ice on steps leading up to an apartment building several days after a snowstorm because the property owner failed to salt or clear those stairs, that argument would not hold as much weight. Since Kim slipped on a rainwater puddle inside a store, however, and since the manager in the store admitted he was aware it was raining, then Ling’s Market can’t make the argument that it was not something they could prevent.
When Annette Ritzmann, owner of a successful cosmetology business in Williamsburg (European Beauty Concepts), slipped and fell at a Miller Mart, a jury eventually awarded her more than twelve million dollars: this was the highest “slip and fall” damages award in Virginia history (Frohloff, 2007). Ritzmann slipped forward and landed chin-first, which snapped her head back violently, and she lost consciousness. Shortly after the accident, Ritzmann was plagued with an inability to concentrate on even the most simple work-related tasks she used to perform with ease and, worse, she also experienced seizures. Further, her friends and family noted that Ritzmann’s personality also appeared to have undergone some dramatic changes. Her doctors indicated that she appeared to be suffering from symptoms typical for a person who had suffered a concussion. The puddle Ritzmann slipped in had accumulated beneath a leaky awning and the owners of the Miller Mart admitted that they were previously aware that the outside curb area under the awning was potentially dangerous (Morelan, 2010). Kim’s lawyer could possibly cite Ms. Ritzmann’s case if Ling’s Market could be proven to be equally negligent and if Kim’s injuries were deemed severe enough.
Celebrities (or residential property owners) are not protected from “slip and fall” negligence (or premises liability) lawsuits. Actor Sharon Stone, best known for her role in the film Basic Instinct, was sued by a maintenance worker, Peter Krause, who severely injured his knees after he slipped into a steep drop-off on Stone’s property. Krause claims that he tried to grab a piece of lattice to steady himself, only to fall further down the slope when the piece of lattice gave way (Reeves, 2011). This dispute is apparently still being fought out in court, but the argument is familiar: Stone allegedly failed to adequately warn people walking around on her property that there was a steep drop-off and she allegedly failed to repair, erect secure barriers around, or post signage near any potentially hazardous areas. An engineer testifying on Krause’s behalf claimed that Stone did have lattice (Stone argued that she did not: that all she has ever had was a basic chain-link fence around her property while Krause claims that the chain-link fencing was installed after his accident) and that it was just “strung together” but not properly framed out (Reeves, 2011). Stone has also hinted that Krause is exaggerating his injuries and the state of her property because she is a celebrity and has petitioned for court documents to protect her privacy by not publishing the address of or pictures taken near or at her home (CBS Los Angeles, 2011).
Property owners are responsible for preventing customer accidents and falls on potentially dangerous walking areas, which includes providing well-maintained floors and walkways, barriers, adequate lighting, fencing and/or signage alerting people to possible hazardous conditions. If, in our case study example, Ling’s Market is found to have been derelict in its duty to provide Wet Floor or similar warning signage or to block off the area of flooring with the accumulated rainwater so customers could not walk there, they may be held liable for Kim’s injuries, which will be determined to have been preventable if Ling’s took basic responsibility. Conversely, customers are also expected to be cautious around possibly slippery surfaces. If it is determined that a “reasonable person” could be expected not to slip and fall, or to avoid the hazardous puddle on the floor of the market, Kim will have a difficult time seeking relief from Ling’s.
In the past, a particular type of negligence suit (comparative negligence) was only very rarely filed in premises liability cases like Kim’s. Initially, a property owner had to be found completely at fault or not guilty, all or nothing, which means a victim would possibly receive no damages if his or her actions were deemed less than faultless. In contributory negligence suits, both parties can admit that they are partially at fault, and damages can be borne by both the victim and the property owner in proportional percentages. In other words, one type of contributory negligence suit works like so: if it is determined that Ling’s is mostly to blame for not placing signage, but Kim also bears some blame for (hypothetically) being aware that it is raining, wearing impractical, slippery-soled high-heeled shoes and walking rapidly on a slick tile floor, Ling’s Market may have to cover, say, 80% of the medical expenses Kim has incurred to care for her injured back, but Kim will have to cover the remaining 20% of her expenses on her own. Another type of contributory negligence case requires that the property owner must be found at least 50% liable for an accident or a plaintiff can receive no compensatory damages at all (WCIS Media, 2012).
In this case, since Ling’s Market failed to place a Wet Floor sign and Kim fell and was hurt, they are likely to be found negligent under tort law. Posting a sign would have served as a warning to Kim and helped prevent her from slipping on the wet floor and injuring her back. If Ling’s had posted a sign or placed a barrier around the wet area and Kim ignored the warning or breached that barrier, then Kim would have no case: Kim is also required to exhibit due diligence when shopping in Ling’s and to not thwart safety measures the management have put in place to help protect herself and others from harm.
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