The phrase "slip and fall accident" can describe a wide variety of situations in which a person injures him or herself on someone else's premises. It can encompass both commercial and residential accidents, such as slipping on spilled milk at the grocery store, or slipping down the stairs of an acquaintance’s home during a social function. This article explores who is liable for a slip and fall accident, and who pays for the damages sustained in the accident.

Who's Liable?

For owners of businesses that routinely open their premises to consumers and the general public, the liability risks associated with slip and fall accidents are real. The legal term for this type of liability risk is "premise liability." Owners of apartment buildings, who lease their units to private tenants, also have to be concerned with premise liability, i.e. the risk that a lessee could be injured during the term of a residential lease. The owner or operator of the property on which a slip and fall accident occurs can be held liable if three criteria are satisfied:

1. The defendant must have acted negligently to have breached a duty of care to the plaintiff. Here, the legal requirement incumbent upon the possessor of a property is that the owner/operator must maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition and satisfy the duty to exercise due care to protect invitees from conditions that can result in injury.

2. The putative plaintiff (the person who slipped and fell on the premises) must be an invitee onto the premises. That is to say, a party in possession of a property will generally not be held liable for injuries sustained by a trespasser on a property while the person was trespassing. Certain exceptions can apply depending on the jurisdiction and the specific facts.

One example is if the trespasser is a child and it was foreseeable to the property owner that a minor would wander onto the owner’s property (because, e.g. the property was adjacent to a schoolyard) and was injured due to a non-obvious, non-safeguarded and dangerous condition on the property. Generally, to succeed in the lawsuit, the plaintiff must be an invitee or, in certain cases, a licensee of the building owner or operator.

3. The putative defendant must possess the property. If a commercial property owner has leased the commercial space to a tenant, the property owner will generally not be held liable for an accident occurring on the premises while the tenant is in possession of that property, absent negligence by the owner that directly causes the accident.

Similarly, in many jurisdictions, a property owner or operator usually will not be held liable at trial if the accident in question was entirely the fault of a third party. For example, if a person is injured by a reckless driver in a shopping mall parking lot, the shopping mall’s owner will generally not be held liable for the resulting injuries unless the parking lot conditions (e.g. lighting or parking lot design) served as a contributing cause of the accident. Thus, property owners cannot be held liable simply because they own a property.

One example of a scenario entailing direct negligence by the building owner—even though a tenant actually possesses the property—would occur when the owner conducts a repair of a leaky ceiling, but does so in a faulty fashion. An owner may also be liable if he or she knew of a dangerous condition on the property, yet failed to take adequate steps to remedy the condition (even if the owner didn't create the dangerous condition).

Additional Factors

Separate from the above criteria, plaintiffs in certain U.S. jurisdictions must satisfy an additional threshold in order to obtain relief from property owner/operators in slip and fall cases. If a slip and fall accident occurs in a "pure contributory negligence" state (Alabama, the District of Columbia, Maryland, North Carolina or Virginia), the plaintiff is barred from collecting any damages if the plaintiff bears any responsibility for causing the accident him or herself. Thus, if the plaintiff is a grocery store shopper who fails to heed a "Do Not Enter" sign at the back of the store while talking on a cell phone, and slips and falls immediately after entering the restricted area, he/she cannot obtain recovery in Alabama, the District of Columbia, Maryland, North Carolina or Virginia.

A less harsh rule applies in states that apply comparative negligence principles. Under comparative negligence, an injured claimant's damages are reduced by the plaintiff’s proportionate share of liability. In a comparative negligence jurisdiction, if the jury finds that the plaintiff’s own negligence was 50% of the cause of the accident in question (such as by failing to adhere to warning signs displayed in a store), and the building owner’s negligence comprised the other 50%, then the building owner would be required to pay only $50,000 of a $100,000 damage award (for example).

Who Pays?

Many prudent business owners obtain premises liability insurance to guard against the risk of paying for damages sustained during slip and fall accidents. Depending on whether the owner/defendant in your case (if you are the plaintiff) obtained such insurance, in a successful suit, you may receive a damage payment from the property owner’s insurance carrier.

Separately, if a jury or the court determines that both the property owner and a third party were at fault (i.e. negligent) in causing your injury, typically (in 46 of 50 states), "joint and several liability" would be imposed on both defendants. This means that as plaintiff, you may pursue recovery of your damage award against either party as if both were jointly liable, and if you are successful in collecting all damages from one defendant, the defendants would be required resolve the respective amounts owed between themselves.

The above information is neither legal advice nor a substitute for reference to applicable state law, and instead provides general information.