Articles Posted in Slip and Fall Accidents

Although Washington, D.C. experiences less snow than many other cities and states along the eastern seaboard, it certainly is no stranger to the occasional icy road from sleet or snow or slippery sidewalk from rain. During the winter months when it gets particularly chilly, sometimes ice forms on common walkways or on the road, which creates slippery conditions. Pedestrians and commuters who walk to work must remain vigilant to prevent any accidental slips, falls, or trips in wet or icy weather.

Slipping and falling most commonly takes place when the weather is icy or rainy, when visibility and weather conditions are poor, and when the pedestrian is hurrying or fails to pay attention to their surroundings. If a pedestrian is on their cell phone, in a rush, and wearing poor footwear while attempting to walk on the ice at night, for example, combining any of these factors could also significantly increase the risk of injury.

Slips and falls are more common than you may assume. According to the National Floor Safety Institute, slips and falls account for over a million visits to the emergency room and falls account for more than eight million hospital emergency room visits every year. Falls continue to be the leading cause of emergency room visits.

Many consider Washington D.C. “America’s Front Yard”, as the nation’s capital is home to many iconic memorials and museums. Every year, millions of people visit Washington D.C. to commemorate legacies, make their voices heard, and learn about our nation’s history. The vast amount of visitors at monuments and museums often leads to heavy vehicle and foot traffic. Although these institutions take steps to prevent injuries, the measures do not always address the extent of hazards and dangers that these places pose to guests, visitors, and employees.

Generally, property owners owe their visitors, guests, and employees a duty to keep their premises safe from dangers. However, the duty varies depending on the status of the business, the classification of the guest, and circumstances surrounding the injuries. The challenges only heighten when the injury occurs at a government building or property. Some common places where a Washington D.C. injury may occur include:

  • Supreme Court
  • Library of Congress
  • National Monument
  • U.S. Capitol
  • National Museum of the American Indian
  • Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden
  • National Museum of African Art
  • National Air & Space Museum

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Under Washington, D.C. premises liability laws, property owners are required to keep public sidewalks in front of their premises free of snow and sleet by clearing sidewalks within the first eight hours of daylight after a snowfall. However, an individual cannot sue a landowner under the statute in a D.C. premises liability case for failing to keep premises free of snow and sleet. Only the D.C. government can enforce the statute against landowners by fining landowners who fail to comply. A landowner may be liable, however, if the landowner acts in a way that increases the hazard created by snow or ice and which then causes the plaintiff’s injuries.

In a recent case before one state’s supreme court, the court rejected such a case. In that case, the plaintiff was entering a restaurant, and as she approached the restaurant, she slipped and fell on ice, sustaining injuries. The portion of the sidewalk where she fell was a public sidewalk. She filed a complaint against the restaurant, alleging that the restaurant was negligent in failing to maintain the sidewalk and the restaurant’s arrival area in a safe and proper condition.

That court rejected the plaintiff’s case, holding that a city ordinance that required an owner to clear a sidewalk of snow and ice created a duty only to the municipality and not to individuals. Thus, only the municipality was able to enforce the ordinance. The court stated that a landowner whose property touches public property does not have a duty to other individuals (including customers) to repair or maintain it. In addition, there was no evidence that the restaurant’s efforts to clear the sidewalk made the sidewalk more dangerous than if they had done nothing.

Washington D.C. encompasses many properties open to the public for recreational use and amusement. While government officials, business owners, and managers take steps to ensure the health and safety of visitors, accidents can happen. Those who suffer injuries at a Washington D.C. park, national monument, museum, arboretum, or similar location should contact an attorney to discuss their rights and remedies.

Do Governments Have a Legal Duty to Keep Their Property Safe?

Yes, generally, government agencies and private property owners maintain a legal duty to make their properties safe from unreasonable risk of harm to visitors and guests. When a property owner fails to ensure the safety of their premises, visitors may face serious injuries. These injuries may stem from icy pathways, uneven surfaces, inadequate or nonexistent security, toxin exposure, and broken steps or handrails. Despite the public policy reasons surrounding the duty to maintain a safe environment, cases involving public properties pose significant burdens on injury victims.

In this blog, we often write about a specific type of Washington, D.C. personal injury lawsuit: premise’s liability claims.

What Is Premises Liability?

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.

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.

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