Slipping and falling doesn’t just happen on the ice at the skating rink. It’s what happens every day in businesses around the country. What’s crazy is the severity of injury that happens in so many slip and fall or trip and fall cases.
As a Palm Beach Gardens slip and fall lawyer (sometimes I say trip and fall lawyer), I see a lot of fall-down victims. What was an interesting first observation when I started to take on these cases was that there is a clear directional difference between a slip and fall case and a trip and fall case. In a slip and fall case, the victim falls back due to a slick substance on the floor, which can break your lower back, crack open your head, and herniate a disc in your neck. It can also rip open your shoulder socket or break your wrist when you instinctively reach backward to brace for the fall. In comparison, the trip and fall is where a person hits an obstruction and falls forward, sometimes catching themselves, but still injuring their back, but also many times falling to the groundbreaking bones or shattering knees.
The rules governing both cases are essentially the same. Florida law uses a general negligence theory to determine how slip and fall or trip and fall cases are evaluated. The rules indicate you can’t sue someone for causing you to slip or trip on their property unless you can prove the owner had a dangerous condition or a negligent condition on their property. That “dangerous condition” can be proved in a number of ways. One of the best ways is by showing the property owner violated some local building code or ordinance. But it is not absolutely necessary to prove a building code was broken to prove negligence. For example, what about “Wet Floor Signs?” Wouldn’t you think each State or the Federal Government would require businesses to use Wet Floor signs? It isn’t very hard or expensive to get one of those yellow warning signs. I looked on Google and they are as cheap as $14.00. Certainly, every business should have one. However, there is no requirement that a business use one of those signs to protect their customers.
Crazy right? Well, it is crazy! It is clearly negligent for an owner NOT to use one of those signs when they know the floor is wet or slippery. If an owner of a business were to testify and say; “I don’t have one of those Yellow Wet Floor signs because I don’t care about customer safety and the law doesn’t require me to put one up!”, I think that very few juries would excuse that behavior. Most would award a person hurt by slipping on the dangerous floor a lot of money based on the callous and foolish behavior of Defendant.
But what if the owner says, “I was on my way to retrieve our Wet Floor sign out of the back and while I was back there the Plaintiff fell.” That is a much harder case! There are many factors a jury would want to know before they could determine who was at fault. For example, how long was the floor wet before the owner went to get the sign? How long did it take the owner to get the sign? Did he go and come back immediately, or did he do some other business in the back not thinking anyone would slip in the interim? Could the owner have stationed another employee at the front to warn people of the slippery floor while he went to get the sign? Was a mat available? Was it wet and slippery from rain or from an employee spilling a bottle of oil on the floor? A lot of questions need to be answered to determine whether the Wet Floor sign would have even made a difference!
As personal injury attorney’s who handle premises liability cases, those cases cover any accident where the victim is hurt because they came across an unsafe condition underfoot, and they fell. Maybe they stumbled, overextended or twisted wrong and herniated a disc in their back. Or maybe they fell to the ground. Maybe a natural condition caused the slip or maybe it was a man-made obstruction in the walkway. Many people fall from spilled food or liquid, others fall on cracked sidewalks, or when they don’t see an object on the stairs. Of course, ice and snow cause people to fall all the time. But stores are responsible for keeping their walkways safe for patrons. Those are viable lawsuits in northern cities like Boston, Massachusetts. Other large falls causing defect are broken floor tiles and uneven steps. There are also less obvious causes like handrails that move or come away from the wall, lighting that is too dim to create a safe pathway, or commercial areas where the elevation changes and no warning is present.
The most important part of a slip and fall case starts with evidence and facts. The clearer those facts are the better the lawsuit for Plaintiff. It allows the personal injury attorney to determine who is the responsible party(ies) and also allows them to make a viable claim for fault being traced back to that individual/employee/tenant or owner who caused the hazard to be there in the first place.
There are other third parties who we need to investigate to determine if they are responsible. We have found that property managers are usually as liable or guilty as the original business owner, landlord, or property owner. In many cases, we can hold all or some of them accountable and then have them point the finger at each other instead of our client!
There is a much harder road for Plaintiff to take when the slip or trip and fall accident happens on public property. In all public cases, the first issue is sovereign immunity. Historically, subjects were not permitted to sue the king unless the King gave you permission to sue. That is now our law as well. Citizens can’t sue the government unless the government says it is ok. In Florida, the government allows lawsuits up to $200,000 for the injured victim and $100,000 for loss of consortium. That makes slip and trip and fall cases more difficult to bring against the state.
As in all lawsuits for damages, the Plaintiff in a slip and fall case is required to prove the Defendant was negligent. Negligence means that the defendant was not reasonable under the circumstances. As we noted above, it is reasonable to believe all stores should put up a warning sign when the floor is known to be wet. If they fail and a customer falls and is badly hurt on their wet mopped floor most juries will find that was unreasonable and dangerous and will hold the store liable for negligence damages.
What is especially important regarding the facts of a slip and fall case is whether the defendant had knowledge of the dangerous condition. There is clear Florida case law that protects stores from being sued for situations where Plaintiff cannot prove Defendant knew or should have known about the slippery condition. We recently had a case where the woman slipped on a grape in a grocery store. When our local injury attorneys investigated and got the security camera footage. We found that another shopper’s infant daughter was throwing the grapes on the floor. The time lag between the grapes being thrown on the floor and the actual fall was 35 minutes. Therefore we were able to show that, if the fall was only 5 minutes from the grape being thrown on the floor the store couldn’t have stopped the fall. But, because we could show that the store had enough time to see the grapes with proper inspections we won the Plaintiff a lot of money. Unfortunately, we needed to sue the store and get the video information through formal “Discovery” where the Judge ordered the Defendant to turn that evidence over to us.