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Slip & Fall Law in South Carolina

Some lawyers consider slip and fall cases as the “Rodney Dangerfield" area of a personal injury practice – they didn’t get much respect and had low expectations. The reasons may have included the perception that the law was stacked in favor of the property owner, or that juries were biased against pedestrians who slip and fall down, thinking “they should have been watching where they were going." My experience has been that those perceptions did not match reality and a substantial portion of my success in a personal injury practice has been from slip and fall cases.

In the practice of personal injury law, a slip and fall is a generic term used to describe an injury that occurs when someone slips, trips, or falls as a result of a dangerous or hazardous condition on someone else's property. Of course, in real terms, a slip is not the same as a trip and results from a lack of sufficient friction between the foot and floor surface, causing one or both feet to slip. A trip usually results from one’s foot getting caught or hitting against an object or obstruction on a floor or a stairway.

In general, property owners or occupiers, especially those that invite the public to shop or conduct business on their premises, have a responsibility to maintain their premises in a reasonably safe manner, and in the case of open and obvious dangers, to anticipate and protect a visitor against harm. The owners, or those in control of the premises, are responsible for injuries that occur as a result of a dangerous or hazardous condition on their property, of which they knew or should have known.

In 1991 the South Carolina Supreme Court decided two cases that changed the landscape in slip and fall cases (and negligence and premises liability cases in general): one adopted the comparative negligence doctrine, Nelson v. Concrete Supply Co., 303 S.C. 243, 399 S.E.2d 783 (S.Ct.,1991); and the other adopted a modified “no duty to warn of the obvious." _Callander v. Charleston Doughnut Corp., 305 S.C. 123, 406 S.E.2d 361. Since a large majority of slip and fall cases involve conditions that are “open and obvious," the holding in Callander has had far reaching consequences. The court held that “an owner is liable for injuries to an invitee, despite an open and obvious defect, if the owner should anticipate that the invitee will nevertheless encounter the condition, or that the invitee is likely to be distracted." Id., 406 S.E.2d at 362. A property owner or possessor is no longer off the hook merely because the dangerous condition was there to see if the pedestrian was looking or paying proper attention. The law places more responsibility on landlords and storekeepers to exercise reasonable care to inspect their property and remove, or warn against, possible hazards that a pedestrian may not see or may encounter because of a distraction, such as looking at merchandise displays instead of the floor.

And since the adoption of comparative negligence, data from other states indicate the success rate of slip & fall cases went from less than 40% to over 60%. Obviously, the old contributory negligence doctrine that barred recovery if the plaintiff was found to be negligent in any degree was a major factor in trial and settlement outcomes.

Slip and fall cases can involve a variety of surfaces including tile or wood floors, concrete sidewalks, asphalt pavement and steps. The falls and resulting injuries are commonly the result of a liquid, plant or food debris, or other “foreign substance" on floors, abrupt changes in floor levels, poor lighting, a hidden hazard such a hole in the ground covered with grass, or improperly constructed or maintained stairs, porches, or railings. People can fall for numerous reasons, including the interaction of the walking surface with shoes; the environment, along with its distractions; and the physical and mental limitations of the victim.Slip and fall injuries can happen in a parking lot, on a sidewalk, at work, in a store, at a construction site, or on private property.

In some ways, a slip and fall accident doesn't sound serious - and, many times, we fall down and only come away with a few scrapes, bruises, or scratches. However, many people are shocked to discover how many people are seriously injured in slip and fall accidents as well as how expensive these injuries can be for the victims, businesses and insurance companies.

Slip and fall cases may seem like straightforward personal injury lawsuits, but the underlying case is often more complex than most people, including attorneys, can ever imagine if they have not had much experience litigating these cases. Handling a slip and fall case often can involve several different areas of common law and statutory law, including landlord and tenant law, contract and equitable indemnity issues, Workers’ Compensation law, the S. C. Tort Claims Act, S. C. Accessibility Act, etc. A slip and fall case may involve litigation against the property owner, property manager, landscape company, contractors, architects, owners association and other potentially liable parties that possessed, controlled, designed, managed, maintained, or created the hazard.

If you have been seriously injured while upon another’s property, you should seek advice from a personal injury lawyer that has experience in handling slip and fall cases and the requisite understanding of premises liability law. Most law firms now have Websites, and if you do not find some case summaries on the attorney’s Website of cases he or she has handled, and the results of trial or settlement, then the attorney probably does not yet have a track record of success or the experience and qualifications that will best serve you.

Additional resources provided by the author

Daniel R. Denton, "The Law of Slip & Fall in South Carolina," 2014, S.C. Bar Association - CLE

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