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Elements of a California Slip/Trip and Fall Case

When someone slips or trips and falls on another’s property, proving the owner’s liability for any resulting injuries can be difficult, especially when the owner of the property or his employees did not create the condition that caused the fall.

Complicating these cases is the mistaken attitude of many insurance adjusters that fall cases are either fraudulent or the injuries are exaggerated. In fact, many thousands of people are seriously injured each year in the U.S. due to falls that do not involve fraud

This blog post explores some general legal principles involved in slip or trip and fall cases and the elements an injured person must prove to prevail in California.

General Negligence Principles

In California, slip or trip and fall cases are referred to by attorneys as “premises liability” cases. A premises liability case is a type of negligence case.  (Brooks v. Eugene Burger Management Corp. (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 1611, 1619.)

California Civil Code Section 1714 states:

“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person…”

In other words, the owner (or manager) of a property has a “duty” to use ordinary care or skill in how he or she manages the property. Likewise, businesses that are open to the public generally have a legal duty to keep customers reasonably safe.

However, “reasonably safe” does not require a property owner to take every possible precaution. Instead, the “duty of care” is judged based on what a reasonable property owner would do, taking into consideration:

  • The location of the property;
  • The likelihood that someone would come on to the property in the same manner as the plaintiff did;
  • The likelihood of harm;
  • The probable seriousness of such harm;
  • Whether the property owner knew or should have known of the condition that created the risk of harm;
  • The difficulty of protecting against the risk of such harm; and
  • The extent of the property owner’s control over the condition that created the risk of harm.

(California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1001; see, Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, 119.)

The existence of a duty of care is just a starting point. Listed below are elements an injured person must prove in order to win a slip or trip and fall case:

Element No. 1: Existence of an Unreasonably Dangerous Condition

Even though everyone owes a duty of ordinary care in the management or control of their property, California law does not presume that a property owner or manager is liable – or that a property is dangerous – simply because someone falls and suffers an injury on the property. The injured person must first show a hazard existed at the time they fell, and that the hazard posed an “unreasonable risk of harm” to others. (CACI 1003.)

Stated conversely, property owners are typically not liable for minor or “trivial” defects in the condition of the property. (Cadam v. Somerset Gardens Townhouse HOA (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 383, 388-389.) A defect is not made trivial, however, simply because of its size. For example, sidewalk cracks like the one in the photograph shown at left may still be dangerous. Moreover, a defect does not have to constitute a “trap” in order to be actionable.

The condition of a particular property can be unreasonably dangerous because of certain hazardous characteristics. For example, flooring might be constructed from a slick or slippery material, has a slippery substance on it; is broken, raised, or uneven, has spills or debris, or it is not constructed according to relevant building codes.

Lack of warnings might also make a condition unreasonably dangerous if the condition is concealed or otherwise difficult to see.

Element No. 2:  Knowledge of the Dangerous Condition

The injured person must also prove the property owner had notice of the unreasonably dangerous condition. (Ortega v. Kmart Corp. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 1200, 1206.) Notice can be either “actual” or “constructive.” When an owner or its employees already know about a dangerous condition, or they created the danger (e.g., employees of a grocery store put pallets outside in a pedestrian walkway creating a trip hazard), the owner has “actual” notice of it. Actual notice may also be proved by showing prior complaints from others to the property owner about the condition or evidence showing the owner botched attempts to repair the condition.

“Constructive” notice exists when a reasonable person exercising due care should have known of the dangerous condition. Constructive notice can be shown in a number of ways, including the severity of the condition and the length of time the condition existed. Each fall case turns on its own, unique facts. It is important to remember that a property owner is not an insurer of the safety of those who come onto his property.

On the other hand, a property owner does have a duty to reasonably inspect his property to discover dangerous conditions, and if he has the opportunity to do so prior to the injury, the property owner must repair the condition, protect against harm caused by the condition, or adequately warn others about the condition. (CACI 1011.)

Element No. 3:  The Dangerous Condition Was a Substantial Factor in Causing the Injury

In addition, the injured person must show that the dangerous condition was at least a “substantial factor” in causing the injury. This element is known as “causation.” (CACI 1000.) It is not enough for an injured person to criticize other, unrelated hazards on the property, even though it may seem like one could infer from such proof the owner was not taking care of his land. The injured person must be able to connect the dangerous condition to the injury she suffered in a way that is logical and makes sense.

Element No 4: Damages

In any negligence case, including slip or trip and fall cases, the injured person must demonstrate that he actually suffered damages as a result of the fall. Damages are classified as either “economic” or “noneconomic” damages.

Economic damages include those items of damages that can be reduced to relatively certain dollar amount, such as:

  • Medical and hospital expenses
  • Future medical expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Loss of future earning capacity
  • Property damage

Noneconomic damages are those which cannot be easily reduced to a sum certain, but which the law recognizes are compensable. These damages are often referred to as “pain and suffering” damages, but they can also include such items as scarring, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, and emotional distress.

In California, an injured person sometimes can recover “punitive” damages – damages that are designed to punish a defendant for particularly egregious misbehavior, but punitive damages are not typically available in slip or trip and fall cases, or premises liability case generally.

Element No. 5:  Identifying the Responsible Party(ies)

Finally, the injured person must be able to identify the party responsible for causing the harm. Throughout this article, for the sake of convenience, the terms “owner” and “manager” have been used. However, in a slip or trip and fall case, an injured person is not limited to suing just those who own or manage the property.  (Alcarez v. Vece (1997) 14 Cal.4th 1149, 1162.) An injured person may file a lawsuit against any or all of the following:

  • Owners;
  • Business proprietors;
  • Renters;
  • Occupiers,
  • Third parties (e.g., contractors) who may have caused or contributed to the hazard; or
  • Anyone who manages, maintains, or controls the property; e.g., property management companies.

10 Common Causes of Slip/Trip and Fall Cases

Certain dangerous conditions are notorious for causing individuals to slip or trip and fall. Here is a list of the top 10 most common causes of these cases:

  1. Wet or slippery surfaces
  2. Broken or uneven pavement or walkways
  3. Bad weather conditions; e.g., snow, icy surfaces
  4. Spills or debris on floors
  5. Loose carpeting or floorboards
  6. Potholes or parking stops in parking lots
  7. Inadequate lighting or bright lighting that causes glare
  8. Dangerous construction sites
  9. Dangerous stairs, railings
  10. Transitions from one type of surface to another

Slip/trip and fall cases can be devastating. If you have suffered a serious fall injury, it is important to learn all you can about your legal rights and remedies. The Young Law Office handles premises liability cases throughout the Bay Area and Northern California. Contact us for a free evaluation of your slip/trip and fall case.

Reprinted, as expanded and updated, from a series of blog posts at Young Law Office Google Page. The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice or establish an attorney-client relationship with any reader or commenter. The information contained in this blog is for informational purposes only. No representations are made as to the accuracy, completeness, or validity of any information contained in this blog. It is important for readers to consult with their own attorney about their case.