Proving Fault in a Slip and Fall Case: Previous Complaints about Existing Hazards

Slip and fall accidents are the second leading cause of injuries in the U.S. Astonishingly, over 15,000 individuals die from slip and fall incidents each year, and many more are permanently affected by serious injuries. Often, these slip and fall injuries are caused by dangerous or hazardous conditions on the property of another. In fact, over 70% of falls are attributed to hazards in our environment, from poorly maintained sidewalks, defectively designed stairways, and slippery surfaces and substances. Slip and falls occur virtually everywhere, from supermarkets and shopping malls, to schools and offices. Sidewalks are additionally a significant site for injury.

Slip and falls can devastate the injured individual, creating a mountain of medical bills, vast sums of lost wages, and sometimes permanent disabilities. Often, slip and fall victims seek compensation from the owner of the property on which they were injured. Maine law requires that property owners use reasonable care in the maintenance and management of their property, including adjoining sidewalks. Victims of slip and fall accidents must establish that the property owner knew or should have known of the hazard that created the fall, and failed to remedy it, before damages can issue.

Therefore, the very heart of a slip and fall case is establishing either actual or constructive knowledge. Some of the strongest premises liability cases are those where the plaintiff uncovers previous complaints concerning the defect that lead to their fall. For instance, a Fulton County, Georgia woman was awarded $4.3 million in a slip and fall case against Sports Authority. The victim, Donna Williams, was injured when she slipped on a concrete ramp leading to the entrance of the store. In awarding the large judgment, the court gave much credence to the fact that there had been several previous complaints concerning the ramp. In fact, one prior accident involving the ramp had resulted in legal action. Accordingly, it was clear the mega-store had actual knowledge of an existing defect, yet did nothing to remedy it.

Similarly, in what is believed to be the largest slip and fall judgment yet, trucker Holly Averyt was awarded $15 million after her fall outside retail giant Wal-Mart. Averyt suffered devastating back injuries after falling on a grease spill in a Colorado Wal-Mart’s loading dock. Wal-Mart not only denied knowledge of the grease spill, it vehemently denied a spill occurred at all. A last minute discovery by plaintiff’s counsel undercut this claim. City records revealed the existence of a grease spot, complaints about it, and Wal-Mart’s efforts to clean it up. This astounding finding was used to impeach Wal-Mart’s corporate representative, and resulted in a monumental win for Holly Averyt.

While previous complaints of hazards can provide vital support for all slip and fall claims, they can be of particular importance for claims against government entities. Many municipalities grant some degree of immunity to government entities that own public property, such as sidewalks. This immunity often does not apply when a previous complaint of the hazard has issued, and the government entity fails to take action.

As is evident in the Wal-Mart case, defendant property owners are not always forthcoming with evidence of previous complaints. An aggressive, knowledgeable premises liability attorney will subpoena necessary records and uncover any undisclosed prior reports. With evidence of previous complaints, it will be easy to establish actual knowledge of the defect on the part of the property owner.

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Peter Thompson & Associates is Maine’s preeminent premises liability law firm. Attorney Thompson has been voted the best personal injury lawyer in Maine, and has been designated the coveted rating of New England “Super Lawyer.” For zealous representation by a team of highly skilled and compassionate personal injury attorneys, call Peter Thompson & Associates today at 1 800.804.2004. Our main offices are located in Falmouth, Bangor and Portland, but we also have convenient office meeting locations statewide. Home and hospital visits are available.

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