January 2011 was the snowiest January that Connecticut has seen since records were first kept in 1905. While one would expect snow and ice accumulation to impact commute times, such accumulation also has had impact on sidewalks, making outside entrances to businesses and houses slippery and dangerous. In fact, according to the Brookfield Patch, snow and ice-related accidents are unusually high this year. Tom Rizzo, spokesman for the Westchester District of the United States Postal Service, also told the Yorktown Patch that there have been 57 accidents due to slips and falls reported by mail carriers in the first few months of 2011.
While some injuries from falls are relatively minor, resulting in slight bruising, other slip-and-fall injuries are more serious, such as broken bones or displaced hips, and require medical attention. Medical attention, of course, is usually accompanied by hospital bills. The question is, then, when you slip and fall on someone’s sidewalk who pays your medical bills?
The answer is not as simple as it may seem. Who pays for such injuries is based on the theory of premises liability.
What is Premises Liability?
Premises liability is a theory that assigns legal responsibility when someone is injured on property owned or managed by someone else. Underlying premises liability is the belief that the property owners are in the best position to keep the property safe for visitors. Generally in Connecticut, when the property is not owned and occupied by the same person, it is the occupant of the property, such as a renter or lessee, who shoulders this obligation, because that person is in the best position to prevent injuries or harm.
However, owners and occupants do not owe the same duty of care to every visitor to their property. Occupants are expected to anticipate trespassers on their land – it is expected that a shopper would visit a retail store, for example; property owners, such as commercial landlords, are not required to anticipate trespass to their land and thus not required to take the same steps to ensure the safety of trespassers as would be required to ensure the safety of those lawfully on the property. There are limited exceptions to this rule, including the presence of dangerous conditions that may be attractive to children and cause trespass.
Premises liability claims frequently arise in the context of social invitees – customers or clients of stores or businesses – to the property. Businesses are required to exercise reasonable care for the safety of these visitors. Reasonable care includes a proactive duty to make regular inspections of the property in order to identify dangerous conditions, as well as an obligation to repair dangerous conditions when identified. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to post warnings instead of repairing the condition.
What Constitutes a Slip and Fall?
Slip and fall refers both to the cause of injury and also the potential claim against the property owner or occupant. Although there are many reasons why a person may slip and fall, the concept of premises liability applies only when the fall is caused by a defect on the property – a “defect” that makes the property unreasonably dangerous. Such defects on a property that could lead to a slip and fall include:
- Property defects, such as improperly built stairs
- Building code violations, such as incorrect stair rise or depth
- Defective surfaces, such as a parking lot filled with potholes
- Poorly maintained surfaces, such as a walkway that has become sticky or slippery
Aside from slips and falls, there are other accidents that may give rise to premises liability claims, such as falling merchandise that injures a shopper.
What About Slips and Falls on Ice?
Some people believe that property owners do not have a duty to prevent falls related to weather or naturally occurring conditions. In Connecticut, the duty to use reasonable care to prevent injury extends to outdoor common areas that accumulate snow, freezing rain or ice. However, owners and occupants can generally, except in unusual circumstances, wait for a reasonable time after a storm ends before they are required to begin snow and ice removal from outside walkways and steps. The state court has determined that to require clearing snow throughout the storm would be both “inexpedient and impractical.” When there are multiple or ongoing storms, the land owner or occupant should remove snow and ice between the storms.
Those who have suffered injury from a slip and fall may be entitled to compensation from the land owner or occupant. Damages may include economic damages, such as recoupment of medical expenses and prior and future lost wages. Connecticut also allows for recovery of non-economic damages, including damages for pain and suffering. In some limited cases, it may be possible to recover punitive damages, including recovery of reasonable attorneys’ fees. Speak with an experienced premises liability attorney to determine if you can recover compensation from your slip and fall injury is eligible for damages.