How To Prove Liability In A Slip & Fall Claim

Were you or a loved one injured in a slip and fall accident in Philadelphia? You may be eligible to pursue financial compensation by filing a personal injury lawsuit. The key, as in all civil lawsuits, is to determine who should be held responsible for the injuries caused by the slip and fall. In this post, our experienced slip and fall attorneys will discuss how liability is assessed in a slip and fall lawsuit.

Determining Liability In A Slip & Fall Case

Thousands of people every year are injured, in some cases very seriously, when they slip, trip and fall on an unsafe floor or ground condition. Wet, slippery floors; uneven patches of pavement; rickety stairs; ice and snow in a parking lot – these are hazards that can cause severe injuries.

Slip and Fall In Store

Property Owners Have An Obligation To Maintain Safety…

If you’ve been injured in a slip and fall, recognize that each of these hazards occurs on someone’s property – a convenience store owned by an individual or business entity, an apartment building owned by a landlord, an office building owned by a corporation. In some cases, these property owners can be held responsible for the accident; in other cases, the facts are murkier and the property owner cannot be held liable.

But Slip & Fall Hazards Can Be A Normal Part Of Life.

What distinguishes the two cases? Why can some property owners be held accountable, while others are not? First recognize that it’s a normal part of life for some hazards to accumulate on the ground. It’s perfectly normal, in a supermarket or convenience store, for slippery substances to drip on the ground, even though these substances create a hazardous condition. Likewise, it’s perfectly normal for surfaces that were once smooth to become uneven and dangerous over time. Paving stones eventually crack, while constant road traffic in time leaves a parking lot bumpy and rutted.

Because these hazards arise in the normal course of living, it’s not always possible to hold a property owner accountable for them. Property owners can’t always be held responsible for failing to clean up a dangerous spill on the floor, especially when the spill only happened recently. Nor are property owners always liable for accidents in which someone slipped or tripped and fell on a hazard that an ordinary, reasonable person would have expected to find there or should have noticed and avoided.

Your Obligations As The Plaintiff

In the same vein, you – as a customer, resident, guest or visitor – have a responsibility to watch where you’re going. You have an obligation to use care in walking around. In particular, you have a duty to notice obvious hazards and act accordingly, moving around them rather than walking right into them.

At the same time, property owners have an obligation to maintain their properties in a reasonably safe condition. There’s no easy formula to determine when someone else should be held legally responsible for the hazard on which you slipped or tripped. Instead, each case depends on whether or not the property owner acted with sufficient care to ensure that slip and fall hazards were not present on their premises – and whether the victim, you, were careless in failing to notice or avoid the hazard.

Elements Of A Slip & Fall Lawsuit

To be held legally responsible for injuries suffered as the result of a slip, trip and fall accident, in general one of the three following conditions must be satisfied:

  • the property owner or an employee caused the hazard to occur, e.g. spilling a slippery substance on the floor or leaving a trip hazard in the middle of a common area
  • the property owner or an employee knew about the dangerous hazard, but did nothing to address it
  • the property owner or an employee should have known about the dangerous hazard because a reasonable person in charge of the property would have discovered the hazard and repaired it

Perhaps unfortunately, this third situation is the most common. It also happens to be the trickiest, since it hinges on those three vexing words “should have known.” In many instances, these cases come down to basic common sense. In considering a case of “should have known,” juries and judges will determine whether the property owner took sufficient care in maintaining the premises by deciding whether or not the steps the owner took to keep the property safe were reasonable.

Another thing that should be immediately clear is that property owners can be held accountable for the negligent actions of their employees. This is an important principle to remember.

The Limits Of Reason

Most claims of negligence depend, in the final analysis, on whether or not the defendant acted in a reasonable manner. But what does “reasonable” mean under these circumstances. In general, legal authorities will focus on whether or not the property owner takes regular (consistent, routine) and sufficiently thorough attempts to keep the property safe and clean.

In practice, these determinations often come down to a series of questions around how and when the property owner makes an effort to clean up spills and other hazards on the premises.

  • If you slipped on a wet area in a store, or tripped over a torn or broken piece of carpeting or ground, how long was the dangerous hazard present? Was the dangerous hazard present long enough that the property owner should have noticed it?
  • How is the establishment normally cleaned and checked for repairs? Does the property owner make use of a regular schedule for checking for maintenance jobs and completing them? If so, what evidence can the property owner put forward that this regular maintenance is actually carried out?
  • Did the property owner make an effort to cordon off the dangerous area, or warn other people about the hazard?
  • If you tripped over an object someone had left on the floor, was there a reasonable justification for the object being placed there? If not, could the object have been removed or made safe in some other way? Was there a safer place to put the object?
  • Did inadequate or broken lighting contribute to the slip and fall accident?

Consider these questions in light of your own accident. You may not have all the answers. It often takes time, and considerable investigation, to determine how long a dangerous slip and fall hazard was present on the premises, or whether a property owner’s cleaning schedule was negligent. But if one or more of these questions can be answered in such a way as to support your account of events, you may have a viable claim for compensation.

Were You Careless?

Another factor to consider in any Pennsylvania slip and fall lawsuit is whether or not your own carelessness contributed to the accident. The plaintiff’s own negligence can dramatically impact the amount of compensation available in the lawsuit, or whether a claim can be filed in the first place.

But there’s good news. Pennsylvania follows a model known as “comparative negligence.” This doctrine says that a plaintiff’s contributory negligence does not prevent him or her from filing a claim for compensation, so long as the plaintiff was not more negligent than the defendant. The legal theory of “comparative negligence” helps to gauge your own reasonableness in determining whether you should have gone where you did, in the way that you did, prior to the accident.

Here are a few questions to help you assess the possibility of your own contributory negligence.

  • Did you have an acceptable reason for going where the dangerous hazard was present? Should the property owner have been able to anticipate your reason for going there?
  • Would another reasonable person have recognized the dangerous hazard and worked to avoid it? Would a reasonable person have walked more carefully, so as to avoid slipping or tripping?
  • At the time of the accident, were you doing something that would have distracted you from noticing the hazard?
  • Were you running, jumping or goofing off at the time that would have made you more likely to fall?
  • Were any warnings (signs, cordons) present to alert you to the presence of a dangerous hazard?

In some cases, property owners can avoid liability in slip and fall cases by arguing that the accident was your fault. As we’ve seen, Pennsylvania holds plaintiffs to the lower standard of “comparative negligence.” Even if the accident was partially your fault, you may still have a claim.