SLIP AND FALL
Most of us have slipped and fallen at sometime in our lives. It may have been on an icy sidewalk or parking lot, a wet bathroom floor, a slippery tile floor in a supermarket, or elsewhere. Sometimes we're lucky and suffer no injuries and only humiliation. Other times, slip and falls result in devastating injuries.
Slip and fall injuries can be serious because many times both feet going up into the air with the body flying horizontally. In this vulnerable position, the forces of gravity assure that the landing is hard, usually onto a hard surface.
Seniors must be especially mindful of slippery surfaces, whether it be outside or indoors. By the laws of nature, seniors often have more brittle bones and can suffer life changing broken hips or other fractures that become difficult to heal.
My first slip and fall happened at about 8 years old in a motel in Ocean City, New Jersey in the 1960s. I was getting ready to go out to dinner with my 5 siblings and parents. The motel did not have any mat or other non-skid surface in the ceramic tub. I slipped and fell right on my front teeth, cracking them in half and creating problems that continue to this day. Of course, in the 1960s, we did not even consider making a claim against the hotel for their negligence. It just wasn't part of our thought process. We did not consider the massive dental bills that would follow for years to come.
The point is that slip and fall accidents can be serious. So let's talk about the duty that you as homeowners and renters of property have to people walking on your sidewalk.
Pennsylvania Law makes homeowners responsible to clear their sidewalks and walkways of snow and ice within a reasonable time after it snows or ices. Of course, the next question is what is a reasonable time?
This past winter of 2010, we experienced extreme snow storms that together left up to 3 feet of snow on the ground in eastern Pennsylvania. I have to admit, that after shoveling my driveway I couldn't begin to shovel my sidewalk until days later. Neither did my neighbors. In this extreme example a reasonable time to clear your sidewalk of snow may be days or even a week after a snowstorm.
In Pennsylvania there is a law called the Hills and Ridges Doctrine. This is an exception to the general rule that you have to clear ice and snow within a reasonable time. This Doctrine makes the homeowner responsible should there be accumulations of snow that develop into hills and ridges making it difficult to pass. Thus, despite it being less reasonable to clear hills and ridges of snow from your sidewalk within a reasonable time, you're actually required to remove those hills and ridges of snow to make your sidewalk passable.
The Doctrine of "Hills and Ridges" also provides that an owner or occupier of land is not liable for general slippery conditions. The theory goes that to require that one's sidewalks and walkways be always free of ice and snow would be to impose an impossible burden in view of the climatic conditions in this hemisphere. Snow and ice upon a pavement create merely a transient danger, and the only duty upon the property owner or tenant is to act within a reasonable time after notice to remove it when it is a dangerous condition.
In a normal circumstances in Pennsylvania where there is anywhere from icy sidewalks to 1-6 inches of snow, it is the duty of a Property Owner to clear that snow within a reasonable time after it snows or ices. A reasonable time depends on the circumstances. For most folks, 24 hours would be reasonable. Snow can be shoveled and ice can be treated by most homeowner within a day.
The next most common cases of Slip and Fall accidets that I have experienced as an attorney happen in supermarkets. Supermarkets are notorious for slip and falls because there are spills of liquids and slippery substances onto normally smooth tile floors. Often those liquids and slippery substances are clear combined with a smooth floor which makes it a perfect storm for a slip and fall. And to make matters worse, shoppers seldom look at the floor. Instead, they look at the isles of food searching for their items on their grocery list.
In Pennsylvania as in most states, there is a very important pre-requisite for a supermarket being responsible for a slippery substance on its floor. That requirement is called Notice.
The whole idea behind notice is that the supermarket must have a reasonable amount of time to find the slippery substance on its floor in order to remove it. For example, a shopper spills a water bottle on the floor, picks it up but leaves behind a small puddle of water and then moves on to the next isle. If another shopper comes along ten seconds later and slips and falls on the water, it would not be fair to hold the supermarket responsible since it did not have enough time to find and clean the spill.
It is an injured person's burden to prove notice. You must prove that a slippery substance was on the floor of the supermarket long enough for the supermarket's employees to have seen it and cleaned it to prevent a slip and fall injury. This is a difficult burden. If a refrigerator is leaking water without a matt nearby, it could be proven that the refrigerator was leaking water for some time. On the other hand, it is difficult to prove how long water was on the floor from a shopper spilling it before someone slips and falls. You can try to prove that a slippery substance had been on the floor for a long time by showing that supermarket employees make regular rounds of all the isles to make sure that there are no slippery substances on the floor.
How about if you're renting a home? What is your responsibility to pedestrians walking on your sidewalk or walkway? Your responsibilities often are spelled out in your Lease Agreement with the Owner/Landlord. Often those Leases make you responsible for maintaining the property including ice and snow removal from sidewalks and walkways. This is particularly true if you lease an entire property and not just a unit in a property. However, if you only rent a unit in an apartment building, usually the Lease will say that the landlord is responsible to maintain all common areas used by all tenants such as hallways, walkways and sidewalks. Make sure to look at your Lease.
If your Landlord is an "Absentee Landlord", Pennsylvania Law places an even greater burden on the renter to make sure all rented space is maintained, including ice and snow being cleared. When the Lease is silent as to who is responsible, you as a renter may be on the hook.
Under Pennsylvania Law, the duty of an owner or renter towards the victim of a slip and fall often depends on the legal status of the injured person. That status could be a business/social invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser. The highest duty is owed to an invitee that you either invite onto your business premises or you invite into your home. In that case, you have a duty to make sure your business or home is free of dangerous conditions. There is less of a duty to a licensee such as a member of a health club. The least duty is owned to a trespasser who is not allowed on your property.
Remember, if you own a home, make sure that dangerous conditions are repaired for your safety and that of your guests.