Articles Posted in Slip and Fall Accidents

In this blog, we often write about a specific type of Washington, D.C. personal injury lawsuit: premise’s liability claims. The premise’s liability doctrine is used to hold property or business owners responsible for accidents on their property. For example, grocery stores that fail to warn customers of slippery floors can be held liable, or homeowners who invite visitors over who are injured on faulty stairs. This is an important doctrine; however, it is not without limits. In some cases, an individual might sign a waiver of liability, releasing a property or business owner from liability if they are injured.

For example, take a recent state appellate court case. The court’s written opinion indicates that in April of 2017, the plaintiff decided to join a gym. In executing her membership agreement, she signed a form that states, in part, “I understand and voluntarily accept full responsibility … for the risk of injury or loss arising out of or related to my use … of the facilities,” and “I further agree that [the defendant] … will not be liable for any injury … resulting from the negligent conduct or omission of [the defendant].” In September of that year, the plaintiff visited the gym and exercised on a treadmill. After her workout, she walked towards a trash bin to dispose of the towel she used to wipe down the equipment, but she tripped and fell on an uneven walkway and broke her wrist.

The plaintiff brought a premises liability claim against the defendant, her gym, alleging that they were negligent in maintaining the facility. The defendant moved for summary judgment, which the court granted due to the waiver agreement the plaintiff signed. The plaintiff appealed. On appeal, she argued that the trial court erred in enforcing the waiver because her injury was not connected to actually exercising or using the gym, but happened as she was walking. The court disagreed, noting that the plaintiff fell right after working out, while walking to throw away the towel she had used to clean the treadmill. For the court, the plaintiff’s injury was sufficiently connected to her use of the gym and was covered by the waiver of liability that the plaintiff signed. As such, her lawsuit against the gym could not move forward, and summary judgment was granted in favor of the defendant.

When someone is injured while on someone else’s property, they may be able to file what is called a Washington, D.C. premises liability lawsuit. Property owners generally have to maintain their premises safe for others—especially those that they explicitly invite onto their property. For example, grocery stores generally have to ensure that their store is safe to shop in, and hotel owners have to make sure their rooms are safe. If a property owner learns about a hazard on their property—a wet floor, for example, or a malfunctioning device that could cause harm—they have to take reasonable steps to fix it and/or warn others of the danger. However, property owners cannot be on the hook for everything on their property—if a hazardous condition arises that they have no constructive notice about—they don’t know about it nor do they have reason to know—they may be able to escape liability if it harms someone.

For example, take a recent slip and fall case. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff spent his day drinking beer and fixing cars at his auto repair shop. That evening, he went to a craft brewery and continued to drink. At some point during the night, he entered the brewery’s restroom and slipped on a wet surface, falling and causing serious back injuries. He then sued the brewery for negligence, and the brewery filed for summary judgment.

The court found that the plaintiff could not recover in this case, because he could not prove how long the alleged wet substance was present on the floor before he slipped. Thus, there was no proof that the brewery had constructive notice of the wet floor—a hazardous condition—and thus they could not be held liable. It would be different if, for instance, there was proof that an employee had seen the wet floor and decided not to fix it, or not to put up a wet floor sign. In that hypothetical, it could be established that the defendant knew about the issue. As it stood, however, the plaintiff could not recover.

In an Washington, D.C. premises liability case, a party must preserve evidence relevant to a claim. Under Washington, D.C. personal injury law, if a party acts in bad faith to destroy a relevant document the party may be liable for spoliation and there will be a strong inference that the document was unfavorable to that party. The court and the jury can consider this inference in deciding the case. If a party fails to preserve evidence but the party did not act intentionally or recklessly, the fact-finder may still draw an inference adverse to the party that failed to preserve the evidence.

To establish a claim of spoliation under Washington, D.C. law, a party must prove: (1) a potential civil action exists; (2) the offending party had a legal or contractual duty to preserve evidence relevant to the claim; (3) the defendant destroyed evidence; (4) the destruction significantly impaired the injured party’s ability to prove the claim; (5) there is a proximate relationship between the impairment and the absence of the destroyed evidence; (6) there is a significant possibility that the claim would succeed if the evidence were available; and (7) damages adjusted for the estimated likelihood of success.

In a recent case before a state appellate court, the court denied a motion for spoliation in a case involving a child that was injured on a playground at a Chick-Fil-A restaurant. In that case, the child had removed his shoes as instructed by a sign at the playground and was playing barefoot on the playground on a hot day when he badly burned the bottoms of his feet. The child’s parents sued the restaurant, arguing that their child was injured by a hazardous condition on the restaurant’s playground. They alleged that the hazardous condition was the use of a sanitizer on the playground that day.

When someone slips and falls in public, they may be embarrassed and assume that their fall was 100% their fault. However, it is important for Washington, D.C. residents to remember that there are often times where a property owner is responsible for allowing a hazardous situation on their property—a situation that causes people to slip and fall. In fact, those injured in these types of accidents may even be able to bring a personal injury lawsuit against a property owner to claim monetary damages, which can cover past and future medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost wages incurred due to the accident.

To be successful in a Washington, D.C. premises liability lawsuit, a plaintiff typically must prove that the hazardous situation that caused them to slip was not “open and obvious.” For example, if there were a large hole in a parking lot, but the hole is large, obvious, and roped off, then it is likely an open and obvious hazard, and someone who falls in may not be able to successfully recover.

Often, parties in these lawsuits will disagree about what constitutes an open and obvious danger. Take a recent state appellate case, for example. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was taking her children to get ice cream when she tripped on a small hole in the pavement outside the ice cream shop. She sued the property owners, but the defendants argued they could not be held liable because the small hole was open and obvious. The trial court agreed and granted judgment to the defendants without even allowing it to get to a jury, but the case was appealed.

When someone is injured in a Washington, D.C. accident, the law allows them to file a personal injury lawsuit against the party responsible for their injuries. These lawsuits can provide injured plaintiffs with financial compensation for their injuries, including money to cover their medical expenses. However, courts across the country have struggled with how to calculate the amount owed in medical expenses in situations where the total cost is much larger than what the plaintiff has actually paid, due to health insurance. In some cases, courts have even reduced plaintiffs’ awards, granted to them by a jury, meaning the plaintiff is given less than a jury of their peers decided they were owed.

For example, take a recent premises liability case arising out of a slip and fall accident on a cruise ship. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff in the case was on a cruise with her family and eating at the ship’s breakfast buffet when she tripped over a cleaning bucket and fell to the floor, sustaining injuries to her shoulder and fracturing her humerus. Since the incident, the plaintiff has been to many doctor’s appointments, physical therapists, and specialists to deal with her injuries.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the cruise company, alleging negligence in leaving the cleaning bucket in a highly trafficked area around the breakfast buffet. After trial, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff and awarded her over $1 million in damages, including $61,000 to cover past medical expenses. This award for medical expenses roughly matched the amount billed by the plaintiff’s healthcare providers. However, the district court reduced this part of the jury award to $16,326 because that was the amount that the plaintiff and her insurer actually paid. The plaintiff appealed this reduction.

In some personal injury cases, negligence may be obvious from the accident itself. In these situations, a plaintiff in a Washington, D.C. injury case may be able to invoke the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor. Res ipsa loquitor is a legal doctrine that applies in negligence cases where negligence is obvious from the occurrence itself. Under Washington, D.C. law, a plaintiff that invokes the doctrine is required to prove, 1.) the occurrence is one that normally does not occur in the absence of negligence; 2.) the occurrence was caused by an agent or instrument that was within the defendant’s control; and 3.) the plaintiff did not cause or contribute to the incident resulting in heir injuries.

Washington, D.C. courts have cautioned against the use of the doctrine. Courts have held that a plaintiff must show that negligence can be inferred based on matters of common knowledge or present an expert to explain that the accident generally did not occur in the absence of negligence. In a recent case, another state’s appeals court considered whether the doctrine absolved the plaintiff of proving that a defendant had notice of a dangerous condition after the plaintiff’s chair broke on a cruise ship.

The plaintiff in the noted case sat on a chair on a Carnival cruise ship and the chair collapsed. After she fell, she saw that a leg had fallen off the chair. At the medical center aboard the ship, they found her arm was not broken and she was given Tylenol, ice, and a sling. After the cruise, the plaintiff discovered that she was suffering from medial epicondylitis and ulnar neurapraxia, or tendinitis, and a nerve injury. The plaintiff filed suit against the cruise line, alleging in part that it had failed to inspect and maintain the cabin furniture. After a court dismissed her case, an appeals court considered whether the doctrine of res ipsa loquitor applied. The plaintiff argued that even if the cruise line did not have notice of the chair’s dangerous condition, it could still be held liable under the this doctrine.

In the District of Columbia, landowners have a general duty to exercise reasonable care to make the property reasonably safe. If a landlord has notice of a dangerous condition, including a hazardous accumulation of snow or ice, the landowner must exercise ordinary care under the circumstances to remove the dangerous condition. This means that a landlord may have a duty under Washington, D.C. premises liability law, to take feasible measures while a storm is still in progress. However, to hold a landlord responsible for their injuries, a plaintiff must show that the landlord knew or should have known about the dangerous condition, including the presence of snow or ice. This means that often, a landlord who does not know about a dangerous accumulation of snow or ice has a reasonable amount of time after the conclusion of a storm to remove the snow or ice.

Recently a state appellate court issued an opinion holding that a landlord was not be protected by the state’s continuing storm doctrine, because the landlord failed to prove that there was a continuing storm based on the weather at the time of the plaintiff’s fall. In that case, the plaintiff slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk outside of her apartment. She filed a lawsuit against her landlord, claiming that the landlord was negligent in failing to keep the path in a safe condition. The landlord argued the according to the continuing storm doctrine, he did not have time to remove or ameliorate the snow or ice at the time that the plaintiff fell.

Under the continuing storm doctrine, a landlord generally may wait until the end of a storm or a reasonable time thereafter to remove ice and snow from an outdoor walkway. The idea is that because of the changing conditions present during a storm, it is not practical or necessary to remove ice and snow. To establish that the continuing storm doctrine applies, there must be meaningful, ongoing accumulation of snow or ice. The court held that in this case, there was a factual dispute as to whether there was a continuing storm. The weather reports showed only trace amounts of precipitation throughout the day, and thus, there was no clear evidence that there was an ongoing accumulation of snow or ice. Therefore, the court held that the landlord failed to show it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law under the continuing storm doctrine.

Many Washington, D.C. residents try to get away from their hectic and busy lives by planning a relaxing cruise vacation. These ships can travel all around the world and are generally a great way to unwind. However, just as in real life, accidents can happen on vacation. Sometimes a tragic incident can ruin a cruise and leave a plaintiff seriously injured. When this happens, Washington D.C. residents should remember that they may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the cruise line to recover for the harm they suffered.

Take for example a recent federal case against Carnival cruise lines. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was on vacation with her family aboard a Carnival cruise ship. Tragically, while on one of the decks of the boat, her three-year-old daughter fell off the deck onto the deck below, suffering head injuries. Eyewitness accounts report that the toddler was climbing the railing, although reports vary as to whether the toddler fell over or fell through the railing. The plaintiff sued Carnival cruise line, alleging negligence in the creation and maintenance of the guardrail.

Generally, to be successful in a personal injury claim, the plaintiff must prove three things: (1) that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; (2) that the defendant breached that duty; (3) that the defendant’s breach caused the accident or injury; and (4) that the plaintiff suffered actual harm as a result. The court in this case was focused on the first requirement—establishing the duty of care—because the defendant had filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case, claiming that they did not have notice of the danger or hazard and thus had no duty to fix it.

Defendants work hard to try to avoid liability when they face a lawsuit. One way in which defendants in Washington, D.C. premises liability cases may try to avoid liability is by filing a motion for judgment as a matter of law, or a directed verdict. These types of motions are routinely filed, as they provide a potential basis for an appeal if the case is not decided in the defendant’s favor.

One recent case illustrates a set of facts under which an appeals court found a directed verdict was not proper. In that case, the plaintiff had sued his apartment complex, alleging two counts of negligence and negligent repair after he slipped in a bathtub at his apartment. Before the plaintiff moved into the apartment, the owner had the unit inspected by the owner’s maintenance team. A week after he moved in, the plaintiff’s wife sent the apartment complex a list of items that needed to be addressed, including a  bathtub that was draining slowly. A maintenance person came to address the bathtub issue, and noted afterward that it was working correctly. A month later, the plaintiff was taking a shower, and the water failed to drain properly, causing the water to rise over his feet. He slipped and fell, causing him to sustain a deep cut in his back that required hospitalization, stitches, and therapy. The plaintiff and his wife did not notice a problem with the bathtub drain between the service call and when the plaintiff slipped and fell.

The apartment complex filed a motion for a directed verdict, the trial court denied it, and a jury found in the plaintiff’s favor and attributed zero liability to him. The apartment complex appealed, arguing in part that the trial court should have directed a verdict in its favor. The appeals court disagreed. It found the issue of whether the apartment complex negligently repaired the bathtub drain, causing the bathtub to back up with water later, was an issue for the jury to decide. Taking the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the drain did clog again, and reasonable people could find that there was sufficient notice and negligent repair, and that the clogged drain caused him to injure himself.

Business owners generally have a duty to protect customers from known hazards under Washington, D.C. law. To prove a dangerous condition existed in a Washington, D.C. premises liability case, a plaintiff must show that the defendant either had actual notice or constructive notice of the hazardous condition. To prove constructive notice, a plaintiff has to show the condition existed for long enough that the defendant should have known of the condition and corrected it in the exercise of reasonable care. The duration of the hazard is an important factor, and the evidence in support of constructive notice often includes evidence of how long the hazard existed. Other evidence may include, for example, the frequency that a defendant inspects for hazards. However, whether notice is sufficient to amount to constructive notice depends on the facts of the particular case.

In a recent case before a state appellate court, the court considered whether a store may have had constructive notice of a puddle of water on the floor before the plaintiff slipped and fell in it. In that case, the plaintiff slipped and fell on the puddle of water at a supermarket. The plaintiff claimed that the plaintiff was negligent because of the existence of the dangerous condition. In the course of discovery in the case, the plaintiff’s sister was deposed, who was there when the plaintiff fell. In the sister’s deposition, the sister was asked only about where the water came from and whether the puddle appeared transparent. She stated that she did not know where the water came from and believed the water was clear.

After the defendant filed for summary judgment, the plaintiff submitted an affidavit from her sister. In the affidavit, the plaintiff’s sister stated that shortly after the plaintiff fell, she saw a pool of water on the ground near a cooler. She explained the puddle was elongated and appeared to have been stepped in by multiple people because there were track marks or footprints to and from the puddle. The store argued that the affidavit should have been stricken from the record, because the affidavit repudiated the sister’s deposition testimony.

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