Falls in Residences

AuthorCharles E. Turnbow
Falls in Residences
§1910 Single Family Homes
§1911 Limited Liability
§1912 Owners’ Lower Duty of Care
§1913 Foreseeability of Use
Case 1: Remote Stairway
Case 2: Main Entry
§1920 Multi-Family Dwellings
§1921 Apartments
Case 1: Improper Re-Sealing of a Stairway
§1922 Condominiums
Case 1: Painted Walkways
Case 2: Resurfaced Walkways
§1923 Hotels and Motels
Picture: Water Stains on Concrete Stairs
§1924 Vacation Rentals
Case 1: Fatal Fall in Rental Unit
§1930 Special Care Residences
§1940 Hazards in Residential Buildings
§1941 Structural Defects
§1942 Stairways
§1942.1 Classification of Stairway Fall Accident Cases
§1942.2 Background and Statistics
§1942.3 Common Elements in Stairway Accident Cases
§1942.4 Special Aspects of Premises Liability Law
Case 1: Failure to Inspect
§1942.5 Burden of Proof
Case 2: Plaintiff Slips on Stair Tread
§1942.6 Questions and Answers
Case 3: Handrails Too Close to Wall
§1943 Porches and Balconies
Case 1: Slippery Decking
§1944 Single Risers
§1945 Floor Material and Flooring
§1950 Hazards From Poor Maintenance
§1951 Water on Walkway
§1952 Solid Debris
Case 1: Sand on Handicapped Access Ramp
Case 2: Sand and Gravel on Driveway
§1953 Weathering and Maintenance
§1954 Falls From Windows
§1954.1 Duty
§1954.2 Duty to Maintain
§1954.3 Parental Responsibility
§1960 Changes in Occupancy
§1961 Transient Business Use
Case 1: Home as Precinct Polling Place
§1962 Business Use of Home
Case 1: Home Businesses
Picture: Unmarked Hazard
§1970 Checklists
§1971 Stairway Fall Accidents
§1980 Deposition Outlines
§1981 Stairway Experts
§1982 Lighting Experts
§1910 Single Family Homes
The average house is fraught with hazards. The largest
number of injury-producing slip and fall accidents occur
in or around the home. Falls in bathtubs, kitchens, garages,
stairways and walkways are relatively common.
§1911 Limited Liability
If an injury occurs to a homeowner or a member of his or
her immediate family and the homeowner is also the occu-
pier of the premises, liability is very limited. Many states
have a family exclusion act that prohibits members of an
immediate family from suing each other. Aside from the
stigma of suing a family member, there are a number of
affirmative defenses that can be raised. Since the victim is
usually a resident, he or she may have actual or constructive
knowledge of the defect that caused the fall. Victims who
are also homeowners have a duty to inspect and repair the
premises under most circumstances. There may be liability
by the builder for latent defects which were the result of
poor design or construction practices and which would
not be readily apparent on inspection by the injured prop-
erty owner. However, most jurisdictions have a statute of
limitations regarding such liability. Check carefully before
§1912 Owners’ Lower Duty of Care
When dealing with an accident involving a non-family
member, carefully consider the different levels of duty
imposed by statute, custom, practice or community
standards. Jurors are likely to rely on their own life expe-
riences to determine what is commonly done in the
maintenance of a single family home. For example, a
5-inch-deep hole in the middle of the yard may create a
substantial tripping hazard. It is not unusual, however, to
find such a hole where there are young children or dogs.
Unless the yard is to be used for a quasi-public event,
there is little need, other than for aesthetics, for the home-
owner to fill the hole. The only individuals likely to be
exposed to the condition are family members aware of its
existence. The same defect in the lawn of an apartment
house or public park, however, would require diligent
effort to eliminate. The homeowner has a duty to warn
of known hazards to the social guest and failure to do so
is negligence. Where the occupier is a tenant, the owner
has a duty to both inspect and warn invitees of the hazard.
Social guests of the tenant usually step into the shoes of
the tenant and have the same rights of protections against
§1913 Foreseeability of Use
The foreseeability of the public’s use of the area determines the
required level of maintenance. For example, in the following
two cases, each stairway presented a substantial hazard. The
juries found a different duty based on the area’s anticipated
Case 1: Remote Stairway
The plaintiff was a cable TV installer entering the defendant’s
property to connect drop leads for new cable service. In order to
get to the back of the house to make the connection, the plain-
tiff had to descend wood steps, partially obscured by 10 to 12
inches of snow. The plaintiff slipped and fell down the steps.
Bringing suit in superior court, the plaintiff alleged that the
stairway did not meet the UBC minimum standards of safety
as adopted by the county. The plaintiff contended that the vari-
ation in riser height and lack of handrails created a substantial
hazard. Further, since the defects were in violation of the code
and they directly caused the incident and subsequent injuries,
the plaintiff alleged that he was entitled to a negligence per se
The plaintiff’s engineer stated that the stairway was subject to
the building codes and did not meet the minimum standards.
The defendant’s expert argued that the stairway was exempt
from the code provisions because it was not attached to the
building; instead it was a series of steps following the natural
slope of the lot. The defendant’s expert contended that:
The steps did not serve any habitable portion of the building
and would not be considered part of the ingress or egress
• The placement, design and construction of the stairway was
such that it was not intended for public use; and,
• Since the stairway led to an unused portion of the property,
it was not foreseeable that it would be used by those not in
The jury found that the property owner had no duty to main-
tain the stairway within the specifications set forth in the
building code because the steps were not intended for public
or trade use.
Case 2: Main Entry
The plaintiff was apartment-sitting for a friend at a beach-
front apartment. Beach traffic and on-shore winds caused
sand to accumulate on the walkways and courtyards. To get
from the apartment to the promenade, the plaintiff had to
descend four steps leading from the common porch of the
apartment to the courtyard. As the plaintiff headed out for an
evening walk, she slipped and fell on the sand-coated steps.
During discovery, the apartment manager testified that she was
aware of the sand accumulation, that the problem was a substantial
one, and that she took extraordinary measures to assure that the
steps were clean and safe. Every morning she swept and hosed
down the steps and porch. If she had the opportunity, she would

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