What makes a good slip-and-fall case?

cleanupMany people who are injured in a slip-and-fall don’t know their rights. Often they’ll simply think it was their own fault and therefore they have no case. In a lot of instances this may be true. But if you’ve been hurt in a fall, it’s still a good idea to consult with a lawyer. That’s because it may be easier to get compensated than you realize — even if you’ve encountered an “open and obvious” danger.

Take for example a recent case in New York City. A theatergoer named John Sada slipped and fell on a wet staircase during intermission, then sued the theater for his injuries.

The theater owners argued that they couldn’t be held accountable because they’d been maintaining the theater responsibly and had no realistic opportunity to discover the hazard and address it in time to prevent the injury. To back up their argument, the owners even presented evidence of their maintenance schedule.

However, a New York judge concluded that the case could proceed to trial. According to the judge, evidence of the maintenance schedule wasn’t enough to show the owners weren’t negligent (unreasonably careless). For that, they would have had to show they stuck to the schedule on the day of the accident. Sada also presented evidence that he told an usher about the water on the stairs before he left for intermission, 15 minutes before his fall occurred. While you might think this would hurt his case — after all, he knew of the hazard well before he decided to navigate it, making it an “open and obvious danger” — the court felt he showed enough to be able to bring a claim against the owners. It remains to be seen what will ultimately happen at trial.

In another case, this one from Massachusetts, a woman who tripped and fell while encountering a supposedly obvious hazard got a significant recovery at trial.

In that case, Pamela Matckie was working as a volunteer chef at a food festival being held in Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots. She tripped on warped plywood placed around the perimeter of the field and shattered her left arm bone.

Matckie, who had graduated from the renowned Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, suffered permanent damage and could no longer pursue her dream of working as a professional chef. She sought to hold several parties accountable: the stadium’s owners, its developers, the security and event staffing company that handled the festival and the stadium owner’s insurer.

All the defendants pointed fingers at each other before pointing out that Matckie and other volunteers could have simply avoided walking on the plywood boards, which they characterized as an “open and obvious danger.”

A jury, however, disagreed and awarded substantial damages to the estate of Matckie, who had passed away a few weeks before the trial.

Finally, in another Massachusetts case the highest court in the state expanded what’s known as the “mode of operation” doctrine in a way that could make it easier for slip-and-fall victims to recover, even where the hazard is arguably open and obvious.

Generally, when an injury victim sues a storekeeper over a slip-and-fall, the victim has to show that the owner had some kind of notice of the condition that caused the accident.

But under the mode of operation rule — which is recognized in a number of states — a storekeeper’s negligence is almost implied if there’s a “substantial risk of injury” inherent in how he or she runs the business. So if, say, a grocery store customer slips and falls on a piece of fruit in a self-serve produce aisle, the customer doesn’t have to show the shopkeeper knew or should have known of the condition. Instead, in order to avoid responsibility, the shopkeeper has to show it did everything a reasonable shopkeeper in the same situation would have done.

Initially, Massachusetts only applied this rule to cases that involved “spillage and breakage” of items intended to be sold on the premises or carried about the store.

But more recently, the state’s highest court ruled that under the mode of operation rule a woman who broke her leg slipping on a spilled drink on a dance floor could sue the nightclub where the accident took place. And even more recently, the court gave the go-ahead for a woman to sue a gardening store after she fell on a small stone that had migrated from a landscaped gravel area onto a concrete walkway.

Of course the results in any personal-injury case depend on the specific circumstances. But if you have suffered an injury in a fall, it’s very important to talk to an attorney instead of assuming you have no recourse. Like the victims in these cases, you very well might.