The onset of winter each year should alert property owners to make sure they are ready for the dangers imposed upon pedestrians by snow and ice storms.
Residential property owners will want to keep their front sidewalks safe for school children to use each morning and afternoon. Business owners will want to make sure their walkways are safe for shoppers.
Property owners who ignore these potential hazards are setting themselves up for costly judgments in slip and fall litigation in case someone falls on their icy walkway and becomes injured.
While giving that caution, slip and fall injuries on an icy sidewalk are not always recoverable. Many times property owners can be held responsible and ordered to pay damages. But it's a myth that every time you fall on an icy or snow-covered sidewalk that you are eligible for damages.
While falls often are the subjects of cartoons or comedy sitcoms, falls off the screen are no laughing matter. Falls that injure the spine and back are the most common sources of injuries in the United States. Falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths in older Americans. In fact, one of every three people 65 and older falls each year. Falls also are the leading cause of non-fatal injuries to children up to age 14, causing 2.5 million emergency room visits each year.
"Slip and fall" is a term used for an injury which occurs when someone slips, trips or falls as a result of a dangerous or hazardous condition on someone else's property. Water, ice or snow, an abrupt change in flooring or a walkway, poor lighting or a hidden hazard might cause the fall.
"Slip and fall" cases fall under a broader category known as "premises liability." Under the premises liability area of law, property owners and businesses have a duty to provide a safe environment and if they fail to do so, and someone is injured as a result, they may be held liable for medical expenses, pain and suffering, and lost wages."
But you must prove that the property owner knew or should have known about the hazard and that he had a reasonable amount of time to correct the hazard but failed to do so. In the case of an overnight winter storm, the property owner may not be liable if a reasonable amount of time to clear the walkway had not passed.
Generally the law does not require a property owner to remove ice or snow that accumulates outside the building as a result of weather. But if an unnatural accumulation of ice or snow occurs, then the owner can be liable.
And if a snow removal service is employed, the owner can be held liable if negligence can be proved. So many issues are involved with a slip and fall on an icy walkway that an attorney should be hired to review the facts.
There is no precise formula that can be used to determine when the property owner is responsible if you slip or trip. Each case turns on whether the property owner acted carefully so that slipping was unlikely to happen and whether you were careless in not seeing or avoiding the condition that caused your fall. That's why you must seek the advice of an attorney who can make that determination for you.
The doctrine of "comparative negligence" often applies in "slip and fall" cases, and that generates another set of issues to be explored by legal counsel. The comparative negligence standard looks at whether the victim had a legitimate reason to be at the place where the hazard existed, if a careful person could have observed and avoided the hazard, if any warnings existed, and if the victim was distracted.
An attorney who specializes in personal injury law will make sure the victim obtains necessary and timely medical consultation and will help you preserve the valuable evidence about what caused the injury. A knowledgeable "slip and fall" attorney also will make sure the lawsuit is filed on time, which is very important. For instance, if you fall on a sidewalk owned by a municipality you might have less than 90 days to file a claim.
I trust this information is useful to property owners and victims alike. As someone who enjoys winter, I urge everyone to get out and enjoy skiing, snowmobiling, hikes in the woods, or just an exercise walk down the street. But don't spoil your winter fun by not watching for patches of ice or other slippery spots on drives and walkways.
About the author:
Terry Cochran, senior partner in Cochran, Foley & Associates, P.C., a Michigan law firm specializing in personal liability, medical malpractice, and SSD/SSI appeals. Cochran does not represent insurance companies or corporations but instead bases his practice upon representing individuals and families.
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