Stairs present a number of special dangers, some obvious, some hidden, that cause thousands of people to trip or slip and fall every year. With the more obvious defects -- a torn or loose carpet, or a step or handrail that breaks -- the liability of the property owner is usually clear. With things that have been spilled or dropped or left on stairs, the responsibility of the property owner is the same as described in any slip or trip accident.
But in addition to normal considerations of things spilled or left on stairs, there may have been additional dangers with stairs that made your fall more likely. Some defects in stairs may remain hidden even after your accident. As for these, you may have to make an effort to figure out what happened and how the stairs should have been constructed or maintained differently.
A common hidden stair danger is worn-down carpet or wood that makes the "run" part of a stair -- the part your foot lands on -- dangerous, both going up and coming down. Even a slightly worn stair or carpet, particularly on the edge of a step, can be perilous because a person is not likely to notice slight wear and may be even more likely to slip than on obviously worn stairs.
Some stairs may have a tile or highly polished wood surface that is more slippery than stone, painted wood, or carpeted stairs. If so, the owner may have sacrificed safety for beauty and may now be liable because of that choice.
Many people slip and fall when rain, snow, or ice collects on outdoor stairs. The first response of an insurance adjuster is often to say that the property owner is not responsible for the weather, and that everyone must be extra careful when it has been cold, raining, or snowing. While this is partly true, it does not end the question of the owner’s negligence.
Outdoor stairs must be built and maintained so that water or ice does not build up excessively on the stairs. If there was an extra buildup of rain, snow, or ice on which you slipped, the step was dangerous and the owner should be liable. Further, an outdoor step must have a surface that does not become extra slippery when wet or icy. If an outdoor step does not have an anti-slip surface, the owner has not taken reasonable safety precautions and may be liable if you slip and fall.
Every state, and virtually every county, has a building code that must be followed by builders and owners when constructing any building, including the stairs. Your city or county building permit department, any local law library, and perhaps your local public library, will have a copy of your state and local building codes.
Check the stair requirements of the codes to see if the stairs on which you fell fail to meet any specifications. If your fall occurred on, or was made worse by, the part of the stairs that fails to meet the code, the code becomes very strong support for your argument that the stairs were dangerous.
A building code stair violation might be measured in no more than quarter inches. But even a very small violation can make a set of stairs dangerous.
You need not use technical or legal language in citing a building code violation to support your injury claim. The code simply provides you with an official declaration of the minimum of safety for a set of stairs. If the stairs you fell on did not meet the standard set by the building code, you have a very strong argument that the stairs were not reasonably safe, regardless of how, or even whether, the building code actually applies.
Most building codes require one or more handrails on stairs of a certain width or a certain height; some building codes also have different requirements for commercial premises, multiple-unit apartments, and private homes.
Building codes also require that handrails be installed properly—that is, firmly attached—and at a certain height. Reaching for a handrail that is at the wrong height can actually cause you to fall when nothing else is wrong with the stairs.
The vertical and horizontal part of each step are called the “riser” and the “run,” respectively. Building codes prescribe a maximum and minimum riser height for each step, and a maximum and minimum depth for the part on which you put your foot, the run.
If you have slipped or taken a sudden and unexplained fall on a stair, measure the stair’s risers and runs, and compare the measurements with the minimums and maximums in the building code. If either the riser or the run violates the code, the stairs were defective.
The question then becomes whether the defect caused your fall. But once you have established that the stairs were defective in a basic way—the wrong height or depth—you have gone a long way toward showing that the stairs were dangerous. Unless the building owner’s insurance company can show clearly that you fell because of your own carelessness, the improper stair alone will normally be enough to gain a settlement for you.
Building codes not only set maximum and minimum stair heights and widths, they also set a maximum variance from one step to another—that is, the differences permitted in the heights and depths of any one step from another.
The variance standard is important because when we go up or down stairs, our brains remember how far the last steps were and automatically tell our legs to move the same distance the next time. If the leg moves the same distance but the step isn’t in the same place—even slightly—we may lose our balance and fall. So, even if each riser and run is within the code limits, variance from one step to another may violate another section of the code and create a dangerous set of stairs.
To learn more about the legal issues involved in these types of cases, see the relevant sections of Alllaw; Premises Liability Laws, and Slip and Fall Accidents. If you need advice regarding the specifics of your case, talk to a personal injury attorney.
This article was adapted from the book, How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Attorney Joseph Matthews (Nolo).