Slip and fall. Trip and fall. Sometimes it’s just an “oops.”
Regardless of how it happened, a fall on a sidewalk can result in severe injury.
But there are 2 sides to every story.
If you’ve been injured in a trip and fall sidewalk accident, you want to know who’s liable and how you can receive damages to cover your costs. If you’re a homeowner or business owner who maintains a sidewalk and someone falls, what should you do to minimize liability?
We’ll take a look at both scenarios, including what to do and how to make sure you’re getting the legal help you need.
First, the hard truths about falls.
Slip and fall statistics
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers these statistics about falls:
- One in 5 falls causes a serious injury like a broken bone or head injury.
- Each year, 3 million older adults in the U.S. are treated in an emergency room for a fall injury.
- There are more than 800,000 hospitalizations a year because of a fall injury.
- There are 300,000 hospitalizations per year of older people being treated for hip fractures.
- More than 95% of hip fractures are caused by a fall.
- Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries.
A fall can result in broken bones, most commonly wrists, arms, ankles, and hips. It can also cause a head injury, which could be especially serious in an older person or someone who takes blood-thinning medication.
There are some medical conditions that make a person more likely to fall. Hazards like broken or uneven steps, slippery conditions on a sidewalk or walkway, debris on the ground, uneven outdoor rugs, sidewalk cracks, and similar issues are just as dangerous.
Florida premises liability law
Premises liability is the area of law dedicated to property-related injuries.
There are 3 categories of property “visitors” in Florida—each with different rights under the law:
- Business visitors (“invitees”) are owed the highest duty of care by the property owner or manager. Every business must follow certain regulations and be regularly inspected for hazards.
- Social guests (“licensees”) are people you invite to your home or other property you own. You have a duty to protect and warn a guest of dangerous conditions on your property. This includes an uninvited guest, like a neighbor who stops by unexpectedly.
- Trespassers visit your property without an invitation, are usually unwelcome, and are usually there without your knowledge. You’re not required to warn a trespasser about or protect them from a hazard, but you’re not permitted to harm them intentionally.
As a property owner, you’re obligated to keep the property reasonably safe, fix hazardous conditions, and warn visitors about any dangers. The key, here, is reasonably safe.
If the property owner didn’t act reasonably, they are considered negligent.
There are 4 elements to negligence:
Defendant owes plaintiff a duty of care
The duty of care was breached
The breach caused injury
The injuries resulted in damages
When it comes to premises liability, the court determines reasonableness that includes how the property was being used, whether an accident was foreseeable, why the person was on the property, and whether the owner made an appropriate effort to warn about a hazard.
Consider this hypothetical scenario...
Holly Homeowner is throwing a birthday party for Aunt Annabel and her friends, most of whom are in their 80s.
Holly knows that tree roots have pushed up the walkway that leads to her front door and that there’s a 3-inch rise in one spot in the cement. She’s aware that she probably needs to have it fixed, but she walks that path every day and hasn’t had a problem, so she isn’t too worried.
On the day of the party, Holly eyes the spot where the pavement is uneven and decides that maybe she should do something about it. Using a magic marker, she writes “Uneven pavement” on a 3” x 5” card and places it on the ground (held down with a small stake) next to the spot.
Aunt Annabel arrives first and successfully navigates her way up the path, even using her walker. The second to arrive is Friend Frieda, but Frieda trips on the uneven spot and falls, breaking her hip.
Frieda sues Holly for damages because it was foreseeable that an accident would happen because of the uneven pavement. Although Holly tried to warn the guests with the sign, it was too far away and written too small for an older person to be able to read it clearly.
The court finds that Holly was negligent.
She had invited guests to her home, and she knew that many were older and might be unsteady on their feet or unable to see an irregularity in the pavement.
It was foreseeable that an accident could happen, and Holly knew that because she made an effort to warn them by posting the sign. But her warning wasn’t adequate or reasonable based on her knowledge of the guests who would be coming. The court awards damages to Frieda for medical costs and pain and suffering associated with her broken hip.
Florida premises liability for a business
Florida has a statutory premises liability law, which means the legal standard is written into the law, and not established by earlier cases.
The state of Florida uses a traditional approach to premises liability based on foreseeability. The injured person must prove that a business owner had actual or constructive knowledge of a dangerous condition before the injury occurred and didn’t fix it.
This specifically applies to “transitory foreign substances,” which means something that doesn’t belong there that creates a hazard. For a sidewalk trip and fall, that might mean the owner knew or should have known there was debris on the walk outside the store and didn’t clean it up.
Florida premises liability for public property
Many sidewalks are public property, which means they’re not owned by a specific person or business. They are part of the public domain, like roadways, and it’s usually the city or municipality’s responsibility to maintain them.
In most Florida communities, the burden of sidewalk maintenance is on the municipalities or local governments. Some localities place the responsibility on the owner of an adjacent property for maintenance and repair, but it could still be the city that’s liable in a lawsuit.
For example, one Florida court (Schupbach v. City of Sarasota) ruled that the City of Sarasota wasn’t liable for an accident on a public sidewalk that’s shared with a property owner unless the city were to pass an ordinance making it possible to sue the property owner for poor maintenance.
However, if the property owner alters the sidewalk, that creates a duty to protect pedestrians and could increase the owner’s liability.
These are examples of alterations that indicated the property owner would have control over the sidewalk:
- Installing a sidewalk ramp
- Mowing and watering a strip of grass or berm between the sidewalk and the street
- Planting a tree
- Fixing a hole that was the result of the city’s having removed a fallen tree
There’s a shorter statute of limitations if you’re making a claim against a government agency than for a regular personal injury lawsuit. In a Florida personal injury case, you have up to 4 years from the time of the injury to file a claim. If you’re suing the government, you must file within 3 years.
There’s also a damage cap on claims against Florida government agencies; you may only be awarded up to $200,000 in damages.
What to do if you’ve been injured in a sidewalk accident
What if the shoe is on the other foot?
What if you’re the visitor, not the owner, and you were injured because you tripped or slipped on a dangerous sidewalk?
First, attend to your medical needs so that you can begin the recovery process.
Next, consider whether you might be able to recover damages.
The basis for personal injury law is that the plaintiff (injured person) may bring a claim against a defendant (negligent party) to cover the cost of expenses required to restore the plaintiff to the condition they were in before the accident occurred.
Damages can be either economic or non-economic.
Economic damages are those that have a specific cost to the plaintiff. In other words, anything resulting from the accident that you must pay for in order to repair your property, physical, or financial condition.
Economic damages might include:
- Medical treatment like hospital stays, doctor visits, diagnostic testing, and prescription medications
- Therapies and assistive devices (like a wheelchair, ramp, or walker)
- Lost wages or loss of future earnings
Non-economic damages are usually for pain and suffering. You can’t put a dollar value on physical pain, but you might experience emotional distress from these or other life changes:
- Inability to participate in activities or hobbies you enjoyed before the accident
- Becoming incapable of caring for your children
- Inability to sleep because of physical discomfort
- Experiencing a loss of consortium
Gathering evidence after a Florida sidewalk accident
The key to successfully recovering damages in a sidewalk accident is establishing the defendant’s negligence. That means you need to show that their action or inaction was the direct cause of your sidewalk fall.
Gather as much evidence at the scene as you can.
Photographs: If you’re able to do so, take photos of the entire area. They should include various angles of the sidewalk and the surrounding area. If there’s a specific defect like a crack, debris, or other visible reason why you fell, make sure to photograph it.
Make note of the weather conditions — if rain made the sidewalk slippery, that’s an important piece of information.
You might even want to photograph your own shoes and clothes to document that you didn’t have anything loose or hanging that could’ve caused you to trip.
Witnesses: Obtain contact information for anyone who saw the accident happen. Even if they didn’t actually see you fall, they might be able to testify to other conditions like the weather, visibility, and other aspects that could be important to your case.
Medical evaluation: You might think your injuries from a sidewalk fall are minor or don’t require treatment, but your legal case will rely on having them documented in your medical record by a doctor. Remember this: the purpose of personal injury lawsuits is to restore a plaintiff to the condition they were in before the injury happened.
If your injury is a twisted ankle that only requires ice for treatment, but you need to miss a week of work while it heals, you’ll need a doctor to verify that the condition is preventing you from working for a period of time.