Proving Liability in a Slip and Fall Case
Under New York law, in each slip and fall case, a successful proof of liability requires that the following three elements are established:
- The property owner had a duty to exercise reasonable care (this obligation is commonly referred the “duty of care”).
- The property owner breached the obligation to exercise reasonable care.
Property Owner’s Duty of Care
A property owner is obligated to maintain his or her property in a reasonably safe condition. If there is a dangerous condition on the premises, the property owner must either correct or remove this dangerous condition or warn others of its existence.
Property owners as well as other business entities or individuals who have ownership, possession, or control of the property (e.g. those who rent or lease the property) — owe a duty to act with reasonable and ordinary care in the management of their property. Specifically, reasonable care must be exercised to prevent exposure of others to unreasonable risks of harm.
The duty of care extends to any person who is welcomed to the property in question. In addition to those people who are invited to the property for the owner’s financial benefit – such as hotel guests, restaurant patrons or supermarket shoppers, property owners owe a duty of care to social guests as well. Municipalities (city or town governments) owe a duty of care to anyone who uses public property – for example, pedestrians using public sidewalks.
Property owner’s obligations include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Perform regular inspections of the premises;
- Perform routine and regular cleaning of the premises;
- Perform regular maintenance of the premises;
- Discover all dangerous conditions that can reasonable be discovered by performing careful inspections;
- Correct all discovered dangerous conditions;
- If a hazardous condition cannot be corrected, repaired or removed by reasonable efforts, issue warnings to visitors and guests.
Breach of the Duty of Care in Slip and Fall Accidents
This element is frequently the most difficult to prove. Property owners breached their duty to act with reasonable and ordinary care in the management of their property if all of these factors are present:
- A dangerous condition existed on the property: the victim of a slip and fall accident will have to provide evidence showing that the condition in question was, in fact, dangerous or unsafe. Additionally, it will have to be shown that, at the time of the slip/trip and fall, the property was used in an intended and expected manner.
All property guests and visitors must use reasonable care in using the premises responsibly and watching where they are going. If it is demonstrated that the dangerous condition was so obvious that any reasonable person would have seen it, the victim may be found to be comparatively negligent. In some cases, the victims can be inattentive or distracted (e.g. looking at a smart phone), engage in risky activities (e.g. racing on a skateboard along a sidewalk). In other cases, the person who suffered a fall may not have noticed the posted warnings. If it shows that the victim failed to exercise reasonable care, it will not completely absolve the property owner of all responsibility, but it will reduce the amount of compensation.
- The property owner knew or should have known about the existence of this dangerous condition: This requirement is commonly known as the “notice” requirement. In order to prevail, the victim of a slip and fall accident does not necessarily need to prove that the property owner actually knew about the hazardous condition. It can be sufficient to show that the dangerous condition was present on the premises for a sufficiently long period of time that any reasonable owner would have discovery it. In fact, most cases involve circumstance where owners did not have actual knowledge of the hazardous condition but had enough time to learn of its existence.
In some cases, in order to prove notice, expert testimony is necessary to demonstrate that – for the particular type of property in question (e.g. a shopping mall, restaurant or hotel) certain customary maintenance and/or cleaning procedures are performed on a regular basis. For example, at coffee shops or shopping malls that have beverage kiosks, spills occur frequently and are expected. If someone owns a coffee shop or a shopping mall, the owner would be expected to do what other reasonable coffee shop or shopping mall owners do – ensure that any spills are promptly cleaned up.
- Prior to the occurrence of the injury, the company or individual who owns the property had an opportunity to either correct the condition or warn about its existence: the opportunity to either provide necessary repairs or warnings must be reasonable under the circumstances. For example, if a liquid spill occurred at a large shopping mall, unless the management was immediately informed about the spill it may be difficult to prove that the spill had to be cleaned up within 2 minutes of its occurrence.
Proving property owner’s breach of the duty of care is not an easy endeavor. When analyzing liability issues, the following factors are significant:
- Was there a dangerous condition on the property in question?
- Was this dangerous or hazardous condition created by the property owner?
- Was there any legitimate reason for the hazardous condition to exist?
- Did the property owner have actual knowledge that the unsafe condition was present on the premises?
- Did similar accidents occur at the same premises?
- Should the property owner have known that the subject premises were unsafe?
- How long was the dangerous condition present before the accident occurred? Did it exist for a sufficiently long period that the owner should have discovery its presence?
- Under the same or similar circumstances, would a “reasonable” property owner have discovered the unsafe condition?
- Did the property owner have a reasonable opportunity to either correct the unsafe conditions create a barrier or issue warnings?
- Did the lighting condition contribute to the occurrence of the accident? Was the area in question poorly lit due to broken or insufficient lighting?
- Did the property owner utilize scheduled procedures for routine maintenance, repair and cleaning of the subject premises? If yes, is there sufficient documentation of these procedures (i.e. logs, schedules and other documents).
Causation of Damages
Under New York law, victims of slip and fall accidents must prove that the injuries suffered by hem were actually caused or contributed to by the dangerous condition that was allowed to exist due to the property owner’s carelessness.