Who is Responsible When I Trip on the Sidewalk

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Have you ever been walking along a sidewalk or walkway and taken a fall? Maybe a step was uneven or there was ice on the ground, or a root had broken through the concrete. Whatever the case, it is possible to seriously injure yourself, even through no fault of your own, just walking down the sidewalk. But, who should be responsible for those injuries?

These types of injuries are commonly referred to as “slip and fall” accidents. Many thousands of people are injured each year in slip and fall accidents, some quite severely. The first thing to consider after such an accident is that sometimes, things really are just accidents and that it is a normal part of life for people to occasionally trip, slip, stumble, and fall. Similarly, sidewalks and walkways sometimes become uneven, grow icy, or slippery substances can be dripped or spilled onto them. There is not always a nefarious act or a grossly negligent property owner to blame. And, we all have an obligation to keep an eye out for where we are going (yes, that means if you trip while walking and texting, you may only have yourself to blame).

However, property owners do need to be careful in protecting those who visit their property from injury. Generally, a property owner is responsible for protecting those on their land from known risks of harm or things they should reasonably know about. For instance, a shop owner should be aware of any spills on the floor that could lead to a slip and clean them up as soon as possible. Ignoring spills could lead to civil liability.

So, if you have been injured in a slip and fall, how do you figure out whether anyone will be liable to you for your injuries? To be legally responsible the owner of the premises or an employee must have either caused the spill, crack, or other tripping hazard; known about the dangerous surface but did nothing about it; or been in a position where they reasonably should have known of the dangerous surface and failed to repair it.

Of course, in most cases of liability, it will be because the owner of the property or its employee negligently failed to observe or repair a tripping hazard. However, it is also common for these cases to be among the hardest to prove because the risk was one that “should have been known” to the owner or its employees. That leaves the question up to the judge or jury in many cases, and is usually decided on a “common sense” basis.

In determining a property owner's "reasonableness," for purposes of a negligence claim in a slip and fall case, the law focuses on whether the owner makes regular repair and maintenance efforts and whether the property is maintained in a clean and sanitary fashion. If you slipped on a spill, how long had it been there? Had employees walked past without cleaning it? If you slipped on the ice outside of an establishment, had the property owner taken any steps to keep the surface ice free? If you tripped over an object on the ground, had it been left there for a legitimate reason?

If it turns out that the answer to these questions tend to show negligence on the part of the property owner, you may have a good claim for your slip and fall injury. However, you still have to consider how your own carelessness may have contributed to your accident. In almost every legitimate slip or trip case the injured person contributed to their own injury to some extent, either by not paying attention to where they were walking, allowing themselves to become distracted, etc. As a result, the rules of "comparative negligence" help determine how much fault you should bear versus the property owner. If you were mostly responsible for your own injuries, the property owner may not have to pay anything towards your injuries. Similarly, if the owner is only partly responsible, the total amount of your damages for which he is responsible may be reduced accordingly.

One final consideration is tripping on a public sidewalk. Who is responsible if the property is actually owned by the government? That is a surprisingly difficult question. Often, it will vary based on local statutes and ordinances. In some locations public sidewalk maintenance is the responsibility of adjacent landowners. In others, the city is solely responsible. Adding an extra layer of confusion are varying standards for government liability. In some locations, case law and even statutory provisions may create a responsibility on the part of the government to adequately maintain and repair public sidewalks and roadways, but the level of responsibility varies from minimal standards to the equivalent of any other landowner.

If you have been injured in a slip and fall accident, you should contact a local attorney to evaluate your case. You can find a local attorney under the “Law Firms” tab, above, as well as additional information about slip and fall and other types of personal injury cases elsewhere on our site.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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