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