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Slip-and-Fall Lawsuit Gets a Second Shot

The National Floor Safety Institute (a non-profit dedicated to reduce slips, trips and falls through education, research and development of standards) reports falls account for more than 8 million hospital emergency room visits annually. Bone fractures occur in about 5 percent of all falls, which are a leading cause of missed time off work for laborers and a top cause of death among the elderly. 

When one suffers a fall at a store or other place of business, the question of whether a claim for damages is viable will depend on numerous factors, including how obvious the hazard was to whether the store had “notice” (actual or constructive) of it. Slip-and-falls in particular can be tricky because of more stringent standards of proof passed by the legislature in 2010 and codified in F.S. 768.0755.

Recently, a slip-and-fall lawsuit out of Wyoming resulted in a plaintiff getting a second stab at pursuing her case, after a trial court had previously dismissed her claim for failure to state a genuine issue of material fact. The Wyoming Supreme Court disagreed and reversed, remanding the case back to the lower court for trial. That doesn’t mean plaintiff will necessarily win, but summary judgment (which is decided by a judge as a matter of law) is inappropriate for a case where there are unresolved matters of genuine material fact (which are to be decided by a jury).

The case underscores how complicated the simple matter of a fall can be, legally speaking.

According to court records, plaintiff accompanied her brother to a local auto repair shop so that his trailer could undergo repairs. They entered through a side door, walked to the front office and exited the same way they came with no issues. Several hours later, they again entered through a side door, walked to the front office, but then exited using the main customer door. They turned left and began walking toward where the trailer was parked, at the side of the building. There was an asphalt parking arrow, and to the side of it (closest to the building) a gravel strip. Plaintiff says she stepped off the gravel asphalt and onto the gravel, slipped and fell. Her brother caught her, but she had already suffered a broken bone in her leg – specifically, her left ankle.

She later filed a slip-and-fall lawsuit against the auto repair shop, alleging it breached its duty of ordinary care to keep the premises in a condition that was reasonably safe for members of the public. Specifically, she alleged the unnatural accumulation of gravel at the site resulted in a slippery condition that caused her to fall. Defendant company denied negligence and sought summary judgment, saying there was no evidence indicating why plaintiff fell or that the rocks were an “unnatural” accumulation. Plaintiff responded that the gravel area where she fell was a man-made, artificial condition and the company had a duty to customers to exercise ordinary care to protect customers from foreseeable harm. The gravel was located on a slope and there was no barrier between the asphalt and the gravel, nor was there any warning advising customers to keep off the gravel. After the incident, however, defendant did place a barrier of tires between the gravel and asphalt.

Defendant argued there was no genuine issue of material fact because there were only two people who actually saw the fall and both testified they weren’t sure where, how or why plaintiff fell. They also argued plaintiff’s expert witness’s conclusions about the cause of her fall were inadmissible because they lacked foundation.

Trial court granted defense motion for summary judgment. However, in its reversal, the state supreme court stated that while not all of plaintiff’s expert witness conclusions (including an assertion of violation of state building codes) will necessarily hold up in trial, the key portions of it were sufficient to raise genuine issues of material fact, such that the case should survive summary judgment.

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Additional Resources:

Williams v. Plains Tire & Battery Co., Inc., Nov. 17, 2017, Wyoming Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Fighting Remittitur in Trucking Accident Case, Oct. 24, 2017, Orlando Slip-and-Fall Injury Attorney Blog

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