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Pennsylvania Slip and Fall Injury Considerations

Posted by attorney Frank Murphy

Injuries caused by slips, trips and falls are everyday occurrences. These injuries could be at home, in a public place, on a sidewalk, at work or in a commercial establishment.

One of the initial reactions to almost every individual who slips, trips or falls is embarrassment. Extreme embarrassed that he or she has fallen. He or she looks around to see who may have seen this and tries to get up as soon as possible and walk away so as not to be further embarrassed. This is a normal human reaction. However, it is frequently a reaction that makes a case very difficult. If you tripped, slipped or fell as a result of coming into contact with a foreign substance, i.e. liquid coming from a meat case at a deli department; or ice in a parking lot, it becomes extremely important to be able to identify the substance that caused your fall, where it was located, the dimensions of the slippery surface, and the potential source from which the substance came. So, if you are in a situation where you slip and fall in a near a deli counter, and get up and walk away and then report it to the manager ten minutes later after you start feeling significant pain, it may be too late. If you return to the spot where you fell and there are no markings on the floor and there is no foreign substance on the floor that indicates what you fell upon, your ability to pursue such a case without your being able to identify the substance, its size, and where it most likely originated, is greatly reduced.

There is also a natural inclination for people who are sitting in judgment such as an insurance adjuster, arbitrator, judge and/or jury to look suspiciously upon people who slipped and fell as though there is always some fault on the person who fell. People frequently are asked the question by insurance company defense lawyers, "Why didn't you see the danger if you were looking where you were going?" This ignores the reality of how people actually walk. As people are looking ahead they are not scanning immediately below their feet. If one turns a corner in a supermarket aisle and slips and falls on a liquid product leaking from an end-shelf display, it is nearly impossible for that person to perceive the spill prior to the fall. People do not walk with their head down or there would be many more injuries from people bumping into objects.

There is a tendency for people to believe that it is not appropriate to bring a claim where you were a participant in your own injury by virtue of having tripped, slipped or lost your balance. However, Pennsylvania operates on principles of general fairness. Pennsylvania has adopted the Comparative Negligence Standard. This allows fact finders to weigh relative fault for an incident. In the case where somebody is walking on a sidewalk and does not see an icy discharge from the side of a building during winter time, a jury and/or finder of fact may conclude that the person should have seen this and assess some percentage of fault. However, an assessment of a percentage of fault of fifty percent or less does not deprive the injured person of a remedy.

Given the above example, if a jury and/or judge were to conclude that a person walking down a sidewalk should have been more aware of his or her circumstance and concludes that person is 20% at fault, this does not mean that the injured person cannot recover. It means that if that person's injuries were assessed at $100,000.00, that person will only be able to collect $80,000.00 or eighty percent (80%) given the comparative nature of fault. As long as the injured party is not greater than fifty percent (50%) negligent, the person can recover their relative portion of fault from the wrongdoer.

Typical injuries resulting from slip-and-fall events range in severity including bruises, broken bones, and scrapes that require minimal medical treatment and heal relatively quickly. Other suffer catastrophic personal injury - a brain injury, spinal cord injury, or burn injury - that causes lifelong damage and requires ongoing medical care. In the worst case scenario, the victim dies because of his or her injuries. If such an event occurred because of the property owner's negligence, then the death is considered a wrongful death.

Many times the only way to prove a case of an inexplicable fall is to determine what body mechanics were involved in the particular circumstance. In many cases handled by this firm there have been situations where architects and/or engineers were necessary to investigate the human factors involved in someone walking up and down a set of steps or entering and/or exiting a building. At times the building itself is defective.

In one case where a young 12 year old girl was playing in an apartment complex running in and out of the entrance door with her cousin, she accidently put her hand through a pane of glass which sliced two nerves in her dominant hand causing considerable disability. On its face, there appeared to be a situation where the young girl was predominantly at fault because of the horseplay in which she was engaged. However, after investigating the door in question, it was learned that the particular apartment complex had decided to save money when fixing glass panes in the entrance and exit doors by using "plate" glass and not the Code required "safety" glass. It is well known that users of exit and entrance doors frequently push upon the glass either intentionally or inadvertently and, therefore, all building codes in the last 30 years require that safety glass be used in entrance and exit doors. Safety glass would have eliminated any chance that this young girl would have had lacerated tendons. As a result, our firm was able to obtain a substantial recovery for this young victim.

Likewise, there have been numerous examples of people who have inexplicably lost their balance and could not understand how that could have happened. Some might write this off to advanced aging or poor concentration. Frequently, our attorneys have found that the person was stepping from a non-standard step. Most entrance and exit ways are required to have steps that are of a certain height. When steps are too short or too tall and outside of the standard expectations, the human brain reacts differently and is signaling the body that it is about to fall because they should have reached the sidewalk or next step by now and since it has not done so the body then prepares itself for falling and shifts balance which then causes the person to lose balance.

The science involved investigating slip and fall cases is sometimes obvious and sometimes requires expert testimony.

What should you do if injured in a slip and fall?

First, you should recognize your surrounding circumstance and determine what, if anything, caused your slip, trip or fall. Was it the slippery surface of your shoes, in which case it would not likely result in recovery. Is it the overly slippery floor such as a marble floor in an office building with no mats that became wet by virtue of people coming in tracking water and shaking out umbrellas. This situation is clearly foreseeable by the building owner. There should be walk off mats to absorb moisture from the outside in inclement weather so that the slippery floor does not become more slippery.

Did you slip on ice? If it is in the middle of an ice storm in a parking lot, then there may not be any likelihood of recovery. If, however, it is four days after a snowfall and the snow that would normally have been shoveled by a prudent landowner or homeowner was left to pack down into a hard sheet of ice, the law does allow a recovery.

Another thing that should be looked at is whether or not there were alternative methods of travel. The law is particularly difficult on people who are making claims who had the ability to travel along a safe path but chose the dangerous path, i.e. the pedestrian who decides to leave his or her car and walk across the icy area when there are less dangerous paths, because it is more convenient is going to have a difficult time proving a case. If, however, the entire parking lot has icy patches all through it, one cannot be faulted for choosing a path that appeared to be safe but, in fact, was not.

The first thing to do is to report the slip and fall to someone in a position of authority at the location where the fall occurred. It is important to document by way of complaint to the homeowner, landowner, or business owner your injury as soon as practical. Obviously, if you are taken away by ambulance you may not be able to do that. The documentation of being transported by ambulance is usually sufficient to justify why such a complaint was not made promptly. If on the other hand you are walking into a large department store and you slip and fall on moisture that is near the entranceway and none of the counter people or store personnel come to your assistance, it is in your best interest to look at your surrounding circumstances, note whatever you can note, take a picture with your cell phone camera if you have the presence of mind to use one and go and report the fall and bring someone back to show the foreign substance or reason why you fell.

It is also important for you to try to document the existence of any injuries as early as possible. Most landowners are insured by policies that have a medical payment fund called "Med-Pay" to help defray medical costs. These provisions allow for payment by an insurance carrier regardless of fault up to a limit of coverage. But these insurance clauses have time limitations as to notice of an injury and the period of time coverage for medical benefits is extended.

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