Slip and Fall: When is a Property Owner Liable?

Written by Matthew Zullo

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Everyone has had the experience of either slipping or tripping and falling to the ground. Thankfully, the large majority of these incidents occur without causing serious injury, but serious injuries do occur to people of all ages as a result of slipping or tripping and falling. These injuries can occur on a flight of stairs, a patch of ice, an uneven sidewalk, a slippery supermarket floor, an improperly leveled elevator or an improperly maintained floor at a home or business. Every visitor to a home or public place expects a certain level of safety and the owner of a property may be legally responsible if their negligence led to an injury. Owners of property have an obligation to take reasonable steps to maintain their property in a safe manner and to warn visitors/patrons of unexpected conditions that may be a hazard.

The basic types of premises liability accidents involve slip and falls on wet, icy or slippery substances on a floor, parking lot or sidewalk. A trip and fall can occur as a result of an uneven sidewalk, an elevator which is not level or where an object blocks or impedes a person’s path. A step and fall accident occurs when someone falls into a hole in the ground which they could not reasonably expect.

While a property owner has a responsibility to take reasonable precautions to maintain their property in a safe condition and to warn visitors of unexpected and hazardous conditions, it is incumbent upon the accident victim to prove that the property owner had notice of the condition. Notice to the property owner can be established by either demonstrating by witnesses or documents that the property owner had actual knowledge of the condition or through reasonable inspections, should have known that the condition was present and posed a hazard. The length of time a condition existed typically bears on the question of notice. The longer a condition exists, the greater the likelihood that the owner should have observed the condition. Where an owner creates a dangerous condition, they are deemed to have notice of the condition, such as hosing down a sidewalk on a cold morning or spilling a slippery substance on a floor and not cleaning it or by building an improper staircase.

Other conditions that may establish negligence have to do with over waxed floors, torn carpeting, lack of railings on steps, inadequate lighting and obstructions in aisles or walkways.

In cases involving municipalities, such as a trip and fall on a defective sidewalk, there are different laws for each municipality regarding notice and who is responsible for maintaining the sidewalk. Generally, it is vital that you act promptly in all types of premises liability cases in order to preserve evidence and investigate the source of the defect or hazard. In cases involving a municipality, urgent action is required as there is a strict ninety days to file a notice of claim against the city, town or village. In such cases, failure to act swiftly will forever bar a claim for personal injury.

While slip/fall cases are common, it takes an attorney who thoroughly knows the case law, municipal laws and all the code rules and regulations that may apply to successfully litigate a premises liability matter for one seriously injured.