Proving a Property Owner is Responsible for Slip and Fall Injuries

Proving your case in a slip and fall accident lawsuit comes down to the four factors of negligence: duty, breach, causation and injury. While these terms have specific legal meanings, the concepts behind the terms are relatively simple. If a you are injured in a slip and fall accident and can prove negligence by showing the property owner owed you a duty, breached the duty by failing to keep the property safe, and that the breach caused some type of injury, a slip and fall case should be successful.

Landowners Owe a Duty to Visitors

A landlord’s duty changes depending on what type of visitor is entering his land. There are three general categories of visitor, with each owed a different type of duty.

  • General visitors, such as friends or family or other non-business related guests, are owed a simple duty.  The landlord just has to keep the property safe, warn their visitor of any known dangers, and refrain from purposefully creating a dangerous situation.  
  • Individuals on the property for the benefit of the landowner, such as a contractor called out to the house, cable repair worker, or customers at a garage sale, are owed a somewhat stricter duty. A landowner is obligated to take all reasonable steps to protect this type of guest from harm resulting from a hazard or foreseeable hazard on his property, even if the danger is hidden.  For example, a landowner is obligated to fix a loose step that the guest cannot see.
  • The final category of visitor is a trespasser. Generally, a landowner owes no duty to a trespasser because the trespasser does not have permission to be on the land. However, while there is no duty to warn of or remove dangers on the property, an owner who deliberately creates a danger that would potentially cause injury to a trespasser (i.e., a hidden trap) can be held responsible for a trespasser’s injuries.

The type of guest determines what type of dangerous condition a landowner needs to protect them from. Any guest that the landlord invites onto the property should be able to explain exactly why they were there and what relationship they have with the owner because it will matter when deciding who is responsible for injuries.

Breach of the Duty to Use Care or Caution

After determining what duty a landlord owes a guest, the law next decides if that duty has been breached by the land owner's behavior. Breach of duty, the second part of the four-part analysis, is not always easy to determine. Generally, a landowner breaches duty if they fail to take reasonable steps to prevent someone from getting injured on their property. Some examples of breach of duty would be failure to clean a spill in a grocery store aisle, failure to warn an estate sale customer of a loose step, or failure to disarm an electric fence.

The law in many states does not find the landlord responsible for breaching a duty if a dangerous part of the property is easily identifiable or the injured party contributed to the accident. For example, if there is a large and clearly visible hole on the yard, and a guest falls in because they are careless, then the landowner may not be responsible for injuries.

Cause - Injuries Must Be a Direct Result

Once it is established that a duty was breached, an injured party must prove that the breach of duty was the actual cause of the injury. An injured party needs to look at what the landowner did to breach the duty, and trace their injury back to that action. For example, if a landowner does not clean up a puddle that a guest slips on, and the guest would not have been injured if they had not slipped, then the landowner has caused the injury.

If a guest would have been injured regardless of what the landowner did, then cause is an issue.

Injury Must Have Resulted

With regard to injuries, one only has to demonstrate that an injury of some type occurred. The injury can be physical or financial in nature. For example, someone who slips and falls on ice and breaks a hip clearly meets the damages requirement. However, someone who slips and falls on ice and gets up unharmed will have a difficult time proving his or her case. While a landowner in the second example may have breached a duty and caused someone to fall, no damage occurred. 

Duty, breach, causation, and injury—each and every slip and fall case boils down to those four issues. However, local and state laws vary and there are exceptions to nearly every legal rule. Even the duties owed a visitor can differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. There are no guarantees that meeting the four requirements will ensure victory in court. Consult with an experienced attorney for the best advice as to how to proceed.

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