What You Must Prove to Win a Slip and Fall Injury Claim

To win a slip and fall claim, you need to establish the property owner's liability for an unsafe condition.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Accidents on other people's property happen, and injuries are often the result, but when someone else's carelessness (or negligence) is a factor, you may wonder about your legal rights. This article discusses a key issue in a slip-and-fall accident claim: liability. Whether you are pursuing an insurance settlement or filing a personal injury lawsuit, to win your case you will need to be able to prove that someone else—usually the property owner—is legally responsible for your injuries.

Read on to learn more about:

  • what lawyers and insurance companies mean when they talk about "liability" for a slip-and-fall accident
  • how liability often works in the most common kinds of slip-and-fall accidents
  • the importance of being able to show that the property owner was negligent, and
  • anticipating and defending against the argument that the injured person's own carelessness somehow caused or contributed to the accident.

What Is Liability In a Slip-and-Fall Case?

In legal and insurance terms, "liability" means the same thing as "responsibility." To hold another party responsible for injuries suffered in a slip-and-fall accident, an injured person must typically prove one of the following:

  • A property owner (or an employee or agent of the property owner) should have recognized a dangerous condition (i.e. a pothole or an uneven walking surface) and removed or repaired the potential danger, but failed to do so. The key question here is whether a reasonable person would have identified the condition as hazardous, and whether the defendant had ample opportunity to remedy the situation before the accident occurred.
  • A property owner (or their employee) actually caused the dangerous condition leading to the slip-and-fall accident—by leaving a hazardous obstacle in a walking path, for example—and it was reasonably foreseeable that someone would trip and fall due to the condition.

When Could a Property Owner Be Liable for a Slip-and-Fall Accident?

Let's take a look at how standards of liability often work for the most common kinds of slip-and-fall accidents.

Slipping or tripping on stairs. Staircases can be unsafe in ways people might not even notice. Factors that can play a role in someone's slip and fall down a set of stairs can include:

  • a foreign substance on the stairs
  • handrails that are poorly designed or missing
  • risers (the height of each step) that are of the wrong height or of varying heights
  • steps that are too shallow, and
  • fraying or unsafe carpets or rugs on the stairs.

If the property owner created these issues, or knew about them and didn't address them, then they could be liable for an injury a visitor suffers by slipping on the stairs. But sometimes people trip on stairs through some fault of their own, or through an unavoidable accident that isn't the property owner's legal responsibility. For example, a party guest might be texting while walking downstairs, and could lose their footing because they're not paying attention to where they're going. That's not the property owner's fault.

Slipping or tripping on rugs, carpets, or defective flooring. Rugs, carpets, and floors can also give rise to liability for a slip (or trip) and fall:

  • Area rugs without a proper grip pad underneath are a serious slipping hazard.
  • Visitors can trip over carpets with holes in them or carpets that are frayed at the edge.
  • Flooring (tiles) can be broken or improperly laid, or just dangerously slippery, especially if it is wet or freshly waxed.

But, just like with accidents on stairs, a fall caused by a rug or a slippery floor isn't necessarily the property owner's fault. It could just be bad luck, or even the visitor's fault (for example, if they ignore a sign cautioning them about a wet floor).

Slipping on ice or snow. A lot of injuries and a lot of litigation result from people losing their footing on ice or snow on residential property. In most states the law imposes a duty on homeowners to act reasonably to remove ice and snow and to make sidewalks and paths reasonably safe.

Even so, it's still not easy to win a case like this against a homeowner. Juries in cold weather states are often reluctant to find homeowners liable—jurors in these regions often feel that ice and snow are known hazards, and that people should be careful. This usually keeps personal injury settlement value relatively low for ice and snow cases against private homeowners.

Tripping on a Broken Path or Sidewalk. Homeowners could face liability for failing to act reasonably to keep paths and walkways on their property in a reasonable state of repair. They are often also required by local law to keep the public sidewalk in front of their property clear of ice, snow and debris.

But it is generally the municipality's job to repair public sidewalks. That means you may have a negligence claim against the local government if you trip over a broken or uneven sidewalk and suffer an injury. The law makes it difficult to sue local governments, and often limits the amount of money you can recover even if you win. Learn more about local governments' liability for sidewalk slip-and-falls.

What Is Negligence and How Does It Affect a Property Owner's Liability?

The term "reasonable" often comes up in settlement negotiations and at other key stages of slip-and-fall cases. That's because, in order to be held "negligent" and therefore liable for damages in a slip-and-fall case, a property owner (or the owner's agent or employee) must have failed to act as a reasonably prudent person would have acted under circumstances similar to those leading up to the accident.

In trying to assess whether the defendant acted reasonably, here are some factors that plaintiffs should consider:

  • Did the hazardous condition or obstacle exist long enough that a reasonable property owner or employee could have taken action to eliminate the hazard?
  • Did the property owner or employee have a policy of routinely checking for potential hazards on the property, and if so, is there some sort of log or other record of whether the procedure was followed immediately before the accident?
  • Was there a reasonable justification for the creation of the potential hazard? And if so, did this justification still exist at the time of the slip or fall?
  • Could the hazardous condition have been made less dangerous through preventive measures such as relocating the hazard, placing adequate warning signage in the area, or preventing access to the location?
  • Was poor lighting or limited visibility a factor in causing the slip and fall?

What If The Property Owner Says That You Caused the Accident Yourself?

In slip-and-fall cases, the property owner (or their insurance carrier, as when a homeowner's insurance policy covers a slip-and-fall accident) may argue that the plaintiff is partially (or totally) responsible for the accident that led to the injuries.

This kind of argument is made under a legal concept known as "comparative fault," and states have codified the concept in "comparative negligence" and "contributory negligence" laws. The rules in place in a given state will affect a plaintiff's ability to recover compensation if they're found to share some blame for the accident.

In the handful of states that follow contributory fault rules, the plaintiff will be barred from collecting any damages at all if they're found to bear any degree of responsibility for the accident. Under the comparative negligence rule (a variation of which is followed in the vast majority of states), an injured claimant's damages award will be reduced by a percentage that's equal to their share of liability—so, a claimant who bears 25% of the blame in a slip-and-fall case would only collect $7,500 of a $10,000 damages award, for example. You can find your state's rules on the issue in this chart.

In order to determine whether a plaintiff might be on the hook for causing any portion of their injuries, here are a few things to think about:

  • Did the plaintiff engage in any activity that might have prevented them from noticing the hazard—using their phone, for example—when an otherwise reasonable person would have noticed it?
  • Did the plaintiff have lawful access to the location where the slip-and-fall accident occurred, or was there a legitimate reason for the plaintiff to be in a dangerous area?
  • Were adequate warning signs posted, and were other safety measures ignored or not utilized by the plaintiff?

If the defense can show that the plaintiff probably caused the accident through their own carelessness, winning an injury claim becomes unlikely.

What Else Do You Need to Know?

To better understand the legal issues in these types of cases and improve your odds of winning, make sure you read up on the basics of premises liability and slip-and-fall accidents. If you're ready to discuss your situation with a legal professional, learn how to find the right personal injury attorney for you and your case.

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