Premises Liability: How Slips And Falls Fit Into The Legal Landscape

At one time or another, we've all slipped and fallen. We've tripped over our own shoes, stepped into a hole and twisted an ankle, skidded on a puddle or missed a step and ended up flat on the ground. Much of the time, a fall will resort in more of a bruise to our ego than our bodies; we might end up with a stubbed toe or some soreness, but no lasting damage. If the fall took place in public or around a group of friends, we'll likely be somewhat embarrassed and could find ourselves as the butt of a few jokes afterwards. Usually, though, we stand up, dust ourselves off, feel sheepish for a bit and then get back to our lives. Of course, this assumes that there were no serious injuries associated with the fall.

No Laughing Matter

A "pratfall" on a television show, perhaps due to a misplaced banana peel or some other comic prop, can be fun to watch. In real life, though, falls are no laughing matter. Sometimes, falls can cause serious damage to our bodies and our psyches; depending on the circumstances, injuries can be catastrophic or fatal. Even if the fall was the result of pure clumsiness and was truly a fluke or an "accident," it can be difficult for us to get past it as our bodies recover. We might be angry at the circumstances, lash out at our loved ones and deal with a general sense of frustration or unfairness. Those feelings are magnified exponentially when the fall — and the injuries that resulted from it — happened because of another person's or business's negligence.

The circumstances of such an incident can vary widely, such as when a business owner fails to repair a set of rickety steps and someone ends up at the bottom of the stairs with a complex fracture, or when a puddle on the floor of a grocery store caused by a leaky freezer unit results in a slip that breaks the hip of an elderly customer. There are as many different situations in which someone could be injured as the number of injuries possible.

Understanding The Law

In legal terms, there is a blanket area of the law that covers injuries sustained on property owned or managed by another person, business, organization or entity: premises liability. The property can be public or private, and residential or commercial.

The phrase "premises liability" encompasses the idea that property owners, managers and overseers owe a duty to people rightfully visiting the property, including customers, guests, friends, family and the whole range of business invitees (people entering commercial premises for the purpose of doing business, which can include vendors, service providers, customers and salespersons). More information about Florida premises liability principles can be found in Chapter 768 of the Florida Statutes.

In short, "premises liability" is founded upon a general duty of care to which property owners are held to take reasonable action required to prevent injury to others. That duty means that owners must perform upkeep and maintenance on property in order to remove hazards that could result in injury. There are a wide range of hazards which could befall a visitor, including:

  • Wet, icy, cracked or broken flooring, tile, sidewalks, driveways, parking lots or other walkways that presents a fall hazard (see Florida Statutes Section768.0755)
  • Torn carpet or linoleum that can trip someone walking
  • Unlit or inadequately lit stairwells
  • Broken stairs
  • Loose, cracked or missing handrails
  • Missing, loose or improperly installed balcony guardrails
  • Inadequate lighting, particularly in areas where the terrain is rough or damaged (like in parking lots or along curbs where someone could trip)
  • Exposure to toxic or hazardous chemicals
  • Electrical hazards that can cause burns or electrocution
  • Naturally occurring or manmade holes, ditches, trenches, wells or gaps (see Florida Statutes Section 768.10)

In some situations, property owners may not owe a strict duty of care to persons on their property for the nefarious purposes, such as committing criminal activity or trespassing. There are exceptions to that, however, such as in the case of an "attractive nuisance" like a swimming pool or an obvious hazard like a sinkhole that is left uncovered. For more information about exceptions like these, see Florida Statutes Section 768.075.

Fatal Premises Liability Accidents Wrongful Death Claims

When an accident — like any of the ones enumerated above — results in injuries, the victim might be able to bring a civil action to recover compensation to cover expenses incurred for medical treatment, lost wages, medication, rehabilitation, surgeries/procedures and other associated costs. This sort of civil claim is the way in which the law holds the at-fault party accountable for his or her negligence, specifically the harm that negligence inflicted upon others.

However, sometimes the negligence of a property owner or those working on his or her behalf results in more than just injury to an innocent victim. Sometimes, victims are so seriously injured in slip-and-fall accidents that they lose their lives. Of course, a deceased victim is unable to seek accountability in the legal system. This doesn't mean that hope of justice is lost. In these instances, it might be possible for the victim's surviving loved ones to bring what is known as a "wrongful death" claim in order to hold the at-fault party responsible and legally liable for his or her actions.

Wrongful death claims are covered by the "Florida Wrongful Death Act," found in Sections 768.16 to 768.26 of the Florida Statutes. These provisions — and precedential case law established by years' worth of premises liability and wrongful death cases decided by Florida courts — set forth:

  • The circumstances in which these claims can be brought (not just in premises liability cases, but also in car wrecks, truck accidents, motorcycle crashes, medical malpractice, fatal workplace injuries, defective products, nursing home abuse/neglect, recreational accidents, aviation accidents and possibly more)
  • Who is eligible to bring such a claim on behalf of a deceased victim

The types of damages that can be sought, including:

  1. Pain and suffering of the loved ones that the victim leaves behind (wrongful death claims don't involve claims for pain and suffering of the victim him or herself, as in personal injury actions, but instead focus on the emotional distress of the survivors)

  2. Loss of consortium or loss of companionship to the spouse, significant other or partner of the victim

  3. Financial issues like funeral expenses and the cost of medical treatment prior to the victim's death

  4. Loss of financial support from future wages or income

Premises liability and wrongful death claims are complicated. There are many different factors to consider, as well as myriad legal principles which may apply. These cases are complex and unique, and they are highly dependent upon the distinct facts surrounding each particular slip-and-fall accident. They are not to be taken lightly and should be handled by a professional. Failing to address the case with due care could mean jeopardizing your legal rights. If you are involved in one of these challenging cases, seek the advice of an experienced Pensacola personal injury attorney like Thomas J. Ueberschaer, P.A.