Slip and fall accidents are an everyday occurrence. Many of these accidents occur in stores, where an uncleaned spill or other dangerous condition may cause an innocent customer to fall and injure themselves. In many cases, these injuries are not minor. For instance, if you slip and fall in a store, you may hit your head on the ground and suffer a concussion (i.e., a traumatic brain injury) or break your leg. Even a less severe type of injury may force you to take time off from work and see the doctor, which in turn can leave you with a stack of unpaid medical bills.
The question that often comes up in these situations is, “Can the store owner be held legally responsible for the accident?” The short answer is yes, the injured customer can bring a personal injury lawsuit against the owner or occupier of the “premises” where the slip and fall accident occurred. This is known as a “premises liability” claim. But the actual laws governing such claims are quite complex and often require the victim to seek advice from a qualified personal injury attorney.
It is also important to note that the laws governing a particular premises liability case will depend on the state where the lawsuit is filed. But here are four things to keep in mind if you are injured in a slip and fall accident and thinking about bringing a personal injury lawsuit:
1. Understand the Statute of Limitations. Every state sets a deadline for a person to file a lawsuit. This is known as the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations may vary depending on the type of lawsuit. In Pennsylvania, for example, the statute of limitations for premises liability claims is 2 years, while in Utah it is 4 years. Most states use a 2- or 3-year limitations period. Normally, the clock starts to run on the statute of limitations from the date that the plaintiff's injury actually occurred. So let's say you were hurt in a slip and fall accident at the supermarket on March 1, 2018. If your state has a 2-year statute of limitations period, you would have until March 1, 2020, to sue the store owner for damages. This means that if you wait until April 1, 2020, you will be out of luck–a judge will rule they lack the legal jurisdiction to hear your case.
2. Speak with a Lawyer as Soon as Possible. Slip and fall accident victims are often reluctant to contact a lawyer right away because they “do not want to escalate the situation.” But the reality is, the store or property owner will likely take immediate action to safeguard their legal interests–and you should do the same. In many corporate-owned stores, for example, employees are trained on how to take “incident reports” from customers injured in slip and fall accidents. Anything you disclose on one of these reports may be used as evidence against you in court later. By working with your own attorney, you can help avoid inadvertently saying something that might undermine your case.
3. Gather Evidence to Prove the Store Owner's Liability. The mere fact that there was a slip and fall accident does not automatically mean the store or property owner is legally responsible for the victim's injuries. As the person bringing a premises liability claim, the burden is on you to prove the owner's negligence. This usually means presenting evidence that the store knew–or should have known–about the hazard that caused the slip and fall. This is known in legal terms as “actual or constructive” notice. Additionally, you may need to refute claims from the store that you had equal or superior knowledge of the hazard and still proceeded to act in a reckless manner.
4.Take a Complete Measure of Your Damages. Even if you can prove the store owner was negligent in causing your slip and fall accident, you will still need to present evidence with respect to the damages you actually sustained as a result. Damages include not just items like your medical bills or lost wages, but also your “pain and suffering” and incidental expenses incurred. Also keep in mind, if a judge or jury finds you were partially at-fault for the accident, your award of damages may be reduced to account for your “contributory negligence.”
What If My Accident Was on Government Property?
Up until this point, we have been describing how premises liability claims work against stores and private property owners. But what happens if your slip and fall accident occurs on public property, such as inside a government building or at a city-owned park? Can you still bring a lawsuit and seek compensation for your injuries.
Generally speaking, you can, but there is a catch. All states have laws in place that allow you to sue a state or municipal agency for damages arising from “tort” or personal injury claims. But these laws also make victims jump through a number of regulatory hoops before their case may be heard in court. Typically, these special rules include a requirement that you give written notice to the government first before filing your lawsuit, in order to give the appropriate agency time to investigate your claim and possibly offer a settlement. You may also find the statute of limitations is different–and often shorter–when making a claim against the government versus a private business owner.
Once again, this is why it is almost always in your best interest to speak with an experienced slip and fall accident attorney as soon as possible. The sooner you engage an attorney, the sooner you can begin gathering evidence and making sure you comply with the appropriate deadlines for taking legal action.