Slip and fall law refers to cases in which an individual slips and/or falls to the ground and suffers injuries due to a dangerous or defective condition or obstruction on someone else’s property. As a subcategory of personal injury law, these cases are governed by the basic rules of negligence.
Personal injury cases related to slip and fall generally involve accidents that result when someone encounters an unsafe condition and then stumbles, overextends, twists or suffers other injuries caused when landing. Dangerous, defective and unsafe conditions can include cracked sidewalks, ice and snow, and potholes, broken floor tiles, and even objects on the steps. Indirectly dangerous, defective and unsafe conditions contributing to the severity of a person’s fall and resultant injuries may include missing handrails or poor lighting conditions.
Responsible parties must be identified at the outset of a slip and fall lawsuit. While fault can usually be traced to an individual landowner, employee or tenant who caused the hazard, there may be additional parties who exercised care, custody and control of the accident location. Potentially responsible parties include landlords, property managers, business owners, or the owner of the property. In most cases, one or more of these parties will have liability insurance covering the property.
Special considerations arise when a slip and fall accident takes place on public property. Historically, victims were completely barred from suing the government for negligence. Recently this rule has been amended by statute, and governmental entities may be sued in limited circumstances. If an accident occurs on federal government property, state law will control. If there are any violations of local building code ordinances, this can be a factor in assessing liability.
Slip and Fall Accidents in Pennsylvania
It is a common misconception that slip and fall accidents only affect the elderly, or that they can happen only during inclement weather. While both age and weather are factors that may increase the likelihood of slip and fall accidents, such accidents are more frequent than one would think. Large cities are more likely to experience a high volume of slip and fall accidents than rural areas, solely because there are more walkable areas and more pedestrians. The most recent statistics place York and Somerset Counties at the top of the list for slip, trip and falls, with Philadelphia County right behind.
According to recent research from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, slip and fall accidents account for approximately one-third of all hospitalizations due to injury. The most common age group sustaining such injuries was those aged 80 years and over. All age groups sustained injuries from falling at a much higher rate than other listed causes of injuries.
Second only to motor vehicle accidents, slip and fall accidents account for 15% of all accidental deaths in the Pennsylvania. It’s not difficult to see that slip and fall accidents can cause serious injury, and that they can occur at work, home, or any location where there is pedestrian traffic.
When can another person be held responsible for my fall?
Three types of falls commonly lead to personal injury claims:
- Slip-and-falls, which occur when a foot slips on a wet floor, a loose rug, or some other hazard caused by a careless person or business.
- Trips, which occur when an obstacle is left in someone’s path, or when a property owner fails to warn a pedestrian about a tripping hazard such as an uneven sidewalk that leads to a front door.
- Falls from a height, such as a fall from a roof or ladder.
Falls from a height are among the most common workplace accidents. Those cases are usually handled by making a worker’s compensation claim. Worker’s compensation pays an amount that is calculated pursuant to state law, and is based on the nature of the injury. Worker’s Compensation claims do not require an employee to prove that the employer was negligent. As a tradeoff for not being required to prove negligence, injured workers are not entitled to jury trials and do not receive the same compensation for pain and suffering that they would be entitled to seek from a jury.
Some work place injuries can be pursued as personal injury claims under certain circumstances. Those claims usually involve injuries that were caused, at least in part, by someone other than the victim’s employer, as well as injuries caused by an employer’s violation of certain safety laws. A qualified personal injury lawyer or your worker’s compensation lawyer can explore your compensation issues and advise you which claim to proceed with.
Injury victims whose falls are not work-related can pursue compensation from any business, property owner, or person whose negligence contributed to the fall.
Where do slip-and-fall accidents occur?
A slip-and-fall accident can occur almost anywhere. When the accident results from someone else’s negligence, however, they often occur in the following environments:
- Supermarkets. Grocery store aisles are notorious for becoming wet as a result of spilled liquids or broken bottles when products fall from shelves. Produce aisles are a particularly common location of wet floors due to sprinkler systems that sometimes overshoot the fruit and vegetables that they spray with water.
- Bars and dance clubs. Establishments where liquid refreshments are served inevitably end up with wet floors. Clubs that permit patrons to carry drinks onto the dance floor pose a particular risk, given the likelihood of spills as dancers jostle against each other.
- Stairways. Slippery stairs pose a danger to people who may lose their footing while climbing up or down a staircase. Falling down stairs creates a greater threat of serious injury than a fall on a level surface.
- Business entryways. Rain and snow produce wet entryways to businesses, increasing the risk that a customer will slip and fall.
- Other wet indoor locations. Ice machines in hotels, vending machines in office buildings, leaky pipes, and moisture caused by condensation can all lead to wet floors that increase the threat of slip-and-falls.
- Hospitals and nursing homes. Any location that houses an elderly or infirm population is a potential source of falls. Healthcare facilities that fail to provide proper assistance to patients as they get out of bed, use the bathroom, or attempt to walk through busy hallways create an environment that enhances the risk that patients will fall.
- Business aisles. Tripping hazards are too often present in crowded store aisles. Merchandise that sticks out from lower shelves, cords stretched across an aisle, and debris littering the aisle may cause customers to lose their footing and fall.
- Other floors. Any floor can pose a tripping or slip-and-fall hazard if tiles or rugs are loose, if carpeting is frayed, or if the floor is slippery due to a buildup of wax or the presence of grease, sand, or dust.
- Sidewalks and parking lots. Any place where pedestrians walk may pose a tripping or slip-and-fall hazard if the surface is not level and carefully maintained. Uneven surfaces and potholes cause individuals to trip, as do hoses and cables that have been stretched across an area where people might be expected to walk. The failure to clear ice and snow from sidewalks and parking lots increases the risk of falls during winter months.
Any other property that is not properly maintained can pose a slip-and-fall risk to unwary individuals who enter the property. A victim of a slip and fall accident has the right to seek compensation for his or her injuries by a showing of negligence and failure to maintain the property in question.
Why do slip-and-fall accidents occur?
Some slip-and-falls, particularly those occuring within the home, are simply unfortunate accidents. Unawareness of surroundings or slipping on water that a victim spilled can lead to serious falls, but the recourse is to seek reimbursement of medical expenses from a victim’s health insurer.
Falls outside of one’s own home are often caused by the negligence of a property owner. In those cases, individuals are entitled to pursue compensation for injuries. Examples of negligent acts (or failures to act) that cause falls include:
- Failure to clean spills. Every business owner that becomes aware of a wet floor has a duty to protect customers from slip-and-falls. This duty can be discharged by cleaning the spill promptly.
- Leaving floors wet after cleaning. Mopping up a spill doesn’t always solve the problem. Businesses need to make sure the floor is dry before they allow customers to walk on it.
- Failure to warn. Businesses are negligent when they notice a wet floor and fail to warn customers of the hazard until the liquid can be cleaned. When businesses are aware of a tripping hazard that cannot be removed or repaired immediately, they are negligent when they fail to erect barricades or to take similar steps to keep people away from the hazard, or when they fail to take reasonable precautions to alert customers to spills and other dangers soon after they occur.
- Failure to inspect. Particularly in areas where spills are likely to occur or where it is foreseeable that a floor will be become wet or slippery, businesses have a duty to conduct regular inspections to assure that the premises are safe. They are negligent when they fail to notice and eliminate hazards that should have come to the business’ attention before a fall occurs.
- Failure to install mats. In areas that are likely to become wet, including entryways and places where condensation is likely to occur, businesses may be negligent if they fail to install moisture-absorbing, non-slip mats.
- Failure to use proper flooring materials. Tiles and other smooth surface floors, as well as carpeting, can become slippery under normal use. When businesses anticipate customer traffic, they may be negligent if they do not install slip-resistant flooring. Dance floors, stairways, and other places where customers are constantly in motion are crucial locations for non-slip floors.
- Failure to maintain flooring materials. Cleaning a non-slip floor with the wrong product can cause it to lose its slip-resistant qualities. Failing to follow the flooring manufacturer’s recommended cleaning procedures can therefore be an act of negligence.
- Poor lighting. Parking lots in shopping centers, apartment buildings, and other areas pose slip-and-fall risks when lighting is inadequate to permit lot users to see water, ice, and other hazards that may lead to a fall.
- Failure to assist. Nursing homes and other facilities for the elderly, as well as hospitals and clinics that care for patients with limited mobility, have a special duty to assist patients as they get out of bed and attempt to walk. In some cases, they may have a responsibility to provide walkers, crutches, wheelchairs, or other assistive mobility devices to help patients move from place to place. The failure to help patients who need it may be negligent.
- Failure to train staff. People who work in nursing homes and hospitals must be trained to assist people who have limited mobility so they will not fall when they leave their beds. Store employees should be trained to inspect floors, stairways, parking lots, and other places where slipping or tripping hazards may be present, and to respond to those hazards appropriately when they are found.
- Failure to establish procedures. Every business should have procedures in place that are designed to prevent customer falls. The duties of managers and supervisors, floor workers, and other employees to implement those procedures should be clearly designated. Businesses should identify high risk areas, delegate responsibility for inspecting those areas, prescribe actions to be taken when a hazard is detected, designate a schedule for replacing flooring materials before they become worn, specify cleaning and maintenance procedures for each flooring material used in the business, and create a training schedule for new employees. Procedures should also specify how accidents will be investigated and reported. The failure to establish those procedures may be negligent.
These are only a few examples of the many ways in which property owners can be negligent. Whenever a property owner should anticipate the risk that someone using the property might fall, the failure to take reasonable action to prevent harm is the kind of negligence for which property owners can be held accountable.
What injuries result from slip-and-falls?
Accident victims who fall due to another person’s negligence sometimes experience only minor bruises or cuts. Unfortunately, more serious injuries can lead to expensive medical bills and long-lasting disabilities. The victim of a slip or trip caused by a negligent property owner should consult a personal injury lawyer after suffering any of the following injuries:
- Hip fractures. Elderly fall victims are particularly susceptible to hip injuries. Almost all hip fractures that seniors experience are caused by falling. Hip fractures generally require surgical repair and sometimes result in a hip replacement. Hip fractures often result in a long-lasting or permanent reduction in mobility.
- Knee injuries. The twisting or stretching of one’s knee during a fall, as well as the impact of the kneecap against the ground, can lead to patellar fractures and damage to cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and the other internal components of the knee joint. Injuries from falls can also lead to a degeneration of the knee that may eventually lead to a knee replacement.
- Other joint injuries. In addition to the knee, other joints that are vulnerable to injury in a fall are ankles, wrists, elbows, and shoulders.
- Brain injuries. More than one-third of all traumatic brain injuries are caused by falling. In most cases, the brain recovers after a few days of rest. Unfortunately, some traumatic brain injuries lead to serious cognitive disabilities, including loss of memory, impairment of reasoning, and attention disorders. Brain injuries can also inhibit the ability to move arms and legs and can lead to personality changes.
- Broken bones. An awkward fall can result in fractured bones in the legs and feet, while trying to break a fall can lead to broken bones in the arms and hands.
- Back injuries. Damage to vertebrae in the neck and back can be extremely painful. Serious spinal injuries can result in paralysis.
- Soft tissue injuries. Muscles, nerves, tendons, and ligaments throughout the body can be stretched, torn, or otherwise damaged as the result of a fall. Soft tissue injuries can be long-lasting and painful. Extensive physical therapy may be necessary to assist recovery. Some soft tissue injuries result in a permanent disability.
As a consequence of their physical injuries, slip-and-fall victims often incur large medical bills and experience a significant loss of wages. Mental distress and emotional suffering is a common side effect of the injuries caused by a slip-and-fall.
What should I do if I fall?
If you were injured in a fall that was caused by a property owner’s negligence, there are several steps you can take to protect your rights.
- Get medical assistance. Arrange for transportation to an emergency room. Get help from EMTs if you need it. You can make an injury worse if you try to move without professional assistance.
- Document the accident scene. Use your mobile phone to take pictures of any obstructions, wet spots, or other hazards that contributed to your fall. Get the names of all witnesses who saw you fall.
- Talk to the person in charge. If you can do so without impairing your health, tell the manager or property owner that you want a copy of any accident investigation report that they prepare.
- Follow your doctor’s advice. If your doctor wants you to participate in physical therapy or to undergo tests, do what the doctor prescribes. Ending treatment prematurely will impair your ability to recover the full amount of compensation you deserve.
- Talk to a personal injury lawyer. Your lawyer will want to conduct a full investigation. You will need to sign a release so your lawyer can obtain copies of your medical records. Only after the full extent of your injury is known can your personal injury attorney assess the settlement value of your claim.
- Do not talk to an insurance adjuster. If the insurance adjuster on behalf of the business where you were injured contacts you, consult an attorney immediately. Saying the wrong thing to an insurance adjuster can damage your ability to recover compensation.
Other steps that you can take should be determined in consultation with your personal injury attorney. Experienced legal professionals are in the best position to help you maximize your recovery for a fall-related injury that was caused by another person’s negligence.