Slip and Fall Accidents
What is a slip-and-fall accident?
"Slip-and-fall" is a legal term that you are unlikely to found used in legal memos or in law books; it is a misleading colloquialism that lawyers use to refer to a certain kind of premises liability case.
It's a misleading term because you might have a slip-and-fall case even if you never slip or fall. You might trip and catch yourself before you fall, rupturing a ligament in his knee. That sort of accident would be considered a slip-and-fall and is just as good, or maybe better, than a case where someone slipped and fell flat on her back.
Some common slip-and-fall scenarios involve slipping on ice while outdoors, slipping on a spilled liquid in a supermarket or slipping on a freshly waxed floor in a department store.
Different legal principles govern these different scenarios. For example, if the supermarket knew, or merely should have known, about the spilled liquid on its floor before the person slipped, the supermarket will most likely be liable.
However, in some instances, a property owner might not be liable even if he knew that guests to his property were at risk of slipping and falling due to a hazard. For example, if you fall on snow or ice in the middle of a blizzard, the property's owner will probably not be liable even though he probably should know that people coming up his front stairs are at risk of slipping. The property owner in the snowstorm case would most likely be protected by the "natural accumulation" rule. (As a side note, if you fall on ice or snow, the law says you're supposed to give notice to the landowner within thirty days of the accident, so don't delay in contacting an attorney). (Editor's note: Since the content for this website was originally written, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has abolished the natural accumulation rule. Property owners now have the same duty to prevent falls due to snow and ice that they have to prevent falls due to other hazards on their property).
Many of the different legal frameworks can be explained by a single economic principle: least cost avoidance. Supermarkets and landlords are, by virtue of their position, more familiar with dangerous conditions on their property than a guest or visitor to the property. Thus the supermarket or the landlord can avoid the dangers of a slip-and-fall accident more easily (in economic terms "at a lesser cost") than the guest or visitor to the property and should be held liable for any resulting accident.
The same sort of commonsense rules and distinctions govern other cases. Generally speaking, a property owners will owe a much greater duty to prevent a slip-and-fall if they profits from or benefit by foot traffic on their property. So a mall, a merchant or an amusement park must take greater precautions to prevent a slip-and-fall from occurring on its property than a homeowner must take to prevent a traveling salesman from slipping on her front steps. And of course that same homeowner won't face any liability if sued by an outright trespasser – like a cat burglar – who slips and falls on her stairs.
As you can see, the legal rules at play in slip-and-fall cases are also designed to promote socially beneficial behavior – like shopping or recreational amusement – while deterring undesirable behavior like theft. The law of slip-and-fall also strives to get those who profit by having passersby come onto their property absorb the costs of injury when someone gets hurt on their property.
As you have probably noticed by now, some simple alterations to our slip-and-fall scenarios can produce almost endless variations and legal questions: What about the shoplifter who slips and falls in the store? Is there a duty owed to him? Far from being a cut-and-dried area of the law deserving of the disparaging name "slip-and-falls," the law of slip-and-fall accidents is complex and subtly influences the ways that we behave and businesses operate.
The bottom line is no two slip-and-fall cases are ever the same and you don't want to choose a lawyer who will take a cookie-cutter approach to your slip-and-fall case. Every slip-and-fall case is fact-specific and fact-dependent. For example, if the spill in the supermarket involved a bottle of cranberry juice that left a large red puddle on the ground, a good lawyer will handle that case differently than a spill involving a bottle of nearly-invisible spring water.
Ultimately, you shouldn't think or worry about the legal principles that may apply to your case. Leave that to me. If you have an injury, it is worth investigating whether you have a case. Legal principles evolve and change when confronted with new or unusual sets of facts. If you have suffered a slip-and-fall injury, you should call me regardless of whether your case is similar to one of the scenarios described above.
My slip-and-fall accident occurred at my friend's house. I don't want to sue my friend but I am hurt. What should I do?
Just as most auto accidents take place within a few miles of home because that's where we do most of our driving, many slip-and-falls take place on the property of people we know or have relationships with, because that is where we spend most of our time.
Oftentimes, someone will be a victim of a slip-and-fall but will be reluctant to sue the property owner because they are afraid that a lawsuit will cause a rupture in a relationship with someone they know or care about. Sometimes the concern in a slip-and-fall accident is not placing a strain on a valued emotional relationship, but on undermining a valued commercial relationship. For example, a tenant who is the victim of a slip-and-fall might think twice before suing her landlord because she is afraid that a lawsuit will lead her tenant not to renew her lease.
In our experience, clients' fears about proceeding with a slip-and-fall lawsuit are almost always unfounded. If you sue friends because of a slip-and-fall that occurred on their property, more than likely they are the defendants in name only. The true defendant – the one who will have to pay for the slip-and-fall accident – is their homeowner's insurance company. Their homeowner's insurance will pay for the slip-and-fall injuries and any, if need be, any lawyers. Since approximately ninety-eight percent of lawsuits settle, the odds are very good that your friends or neighbor will never even set foot in a courtroom for a trial on the slip-and-fall.
Also, in many instances, you really don't have a choice whether to sue to recover for your slip-and-fall. Your slip-and-fall accident will lead to medical bills and, often, your health insurer is not content merely to pay the bills. Your health insurer may have a right of subrogation in any slip-and-fall accident that involves you. What that means is that your health insurer has a right to "step into your shoes" and sue on your behalf, even if you don't want to. That's why it's important to get out ahead of the curve and find yourself a slip-and-fall lawyer with whom you are comfortable.
With respect to the fear, mentioned above, that a landlord sued in a slip-and-fall might not renew your lease, a victim of a slip-and-fall should know that such retaliation is prohibited by law and that such conduct would enable the slip-and-fall victim to pursue additional legal claims against the landlord.
If you have any fears about possible repercussions from pursuing a slip-and-fall lawsuit, call us. We're available for a free consultation to help discuss and allay your fears.
What if I tripped and injured myself on a public sidewalk? Can I sue the government?
Yes, Massachusetts law does allow you to sue a city or town for a defect in a public way. However, if the defendant is a city or town, you must act more quickly to preserve your legal rights so contact an attorney as soon as possible to help with your case.
How much money should I expect to get for my slip-and-fall?
That is not a question that can be answered in the abstract. The recovery for your slip-and-fall accident will depend on a number of factors, including the seriousness of the injury caused by your slip-and-fall, the pain and suffering you've endured, your lost wages, your medical expenses and any number of other factors that may be relevant to your particular slip-and-fall accident. Over the past decade in Massachusetts, jury verdicts and settlements in slip-and-fall accidents have ranged from zero to substantial sums.
It is unlikely that any lawyer can place an accurate dollar value on your slip-and-fall injury without having begun to litigate the case, discovered what the property owner's defenses will be, and having reviewed your medical records and the coverage in any insurance policies. However, if you are interested in a preliminary assessment of the merits of your slip-and-fall case, do not hesitate to call us for a free consultation.
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