Landlords in New Jersey have an obligation to maintain reasonably safe standards for all permitted visitors on their property, and even limited rights to trespassers. This means keeping a property free from any dangers and unreasonable risks that could cause bodily injury to almost anyone that steps foot on the premises. If you or a loved one are injured as a result of a property owner’s negligence, you may be entitled to compensation for your damages.
Here, we will be taking a look specifically at how New Jersey law looks at your rights to sue a landlord for a slip and fall down stairs. This may seem like a very clear-cut or obvious area of the law, but it can become complicated pretty easily. That’s why, generally speaking, you should never pursue a legal matter without the input of a highly knowledgeable attorney.
Quick Look at Basic Stairway Definitions and Regulations
There are many different types of stairways that can cause a slip and fall accident, and that a landlord may, or may not be liable for in different circumstances. The most common stairway that a landlord will be liable for is what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) calls a “fixed stairway.” This is an interior or exterior mode of moving to and from levels of a building, platforms, pits, service ways to machinery, tanks, equipment, exits, and more. A fixed stairway located within or outside of a residential building has many regulations and codes that must be followed from building stairways to maintaining and updating them.
The other main category of stairs is “mobile” ladder stands and platforms. This would be movable, temporary type of stairways and connecting platforms such as ladders, stairways on wheels for multi-purpose uses, connector platforms to allow workers to get jobs done in specific spots, or allow other people to move from one place to another.
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What Exactly Is a Slip and Fall?
Generally, a slip and fall accident is when someone finds themselves in a hazardous condition, slips or trips, falls, and injures themselves. An easy way to visualize this is to imagine someone is walking and accidentally steps on a banana peel, slips, trips, and then falls. Although slip and trip are often used interchangeably, they have their own distinctions.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) outlines these distinctions as follows:
- you can slip when you lose your footing;
- you can trip when you catch your foot on or in something;
- and one or both of those can lead to a fall, which is when you come down to the floor suddenly and accidently.
What Kind of Stairs and Properties Would a Property Owner Be Liable for Maintaining?
A slip and fall could occur on almost any type of property and all types of stairs. Every property will have a landlord, whether that is a private owner, government entity, or an association type of group. Here are some examples of properties where a slip and fall could occur, resulting in an injury:
- Residential rental/leased properties
- Commercial rental/leased properties
- Private properties (such as a home)
- Public access properties including but not limited to:
- Movie theaters
- Retail shops
Now, let’s look at some types of stairways a slip and fall injury could occur on, and how each may affect your chances of receiving compensation.
Most of the stairways that will be available for people to use will likely fall under the “fixed stairway” category. This usually includes stairways that allow people to access their apartments, condominiums, retail shops, restaurants, public transportation, hotel rooms, repair and maintenance areas, and other readily accessible features of a residential or commercial property. If you have permission to be on the property, you will likely be using a fixed stairway. In most of these cases, if you can prove a landlord held most of the negligence, you will be eligible for compensation.
Most of the other types of stairways will fall under the “mobile” stairways category. These are usually ladders, moveable stairways that are on wheels, and any other non-permanent stairway. Typically, these kinds of stairs are used by maintenance workers, contractors, or the owner(s) themselves to keep a check on the property.
If you are a visitor on a publicly accessible property, or a residential property, you will likely not be “authorized” to access staircases that are not meant for anything except your access to the apartment or space you are allowed to access. So if you slip and fall on some sort of maintenance-only access stairs, you may not be able to recover compensation. But if you are a maintenance worker or another authorized person who has a slip and fall due to a landlord’s negligence, you may be able to pursue compensation for your damages. Usually, stairways and platforms that only allow authorized personnel will have warning signs that indicate that they are specially designated areas.
Figuring Out Liability and Negligence
As we work through the details of who is potentially negligent, and who will have most of the liability in a slip and fall accident on stairs, please note that this is just a general information guide. You should always contact an expert attorney to help you achieve the best results in your case. Your attorney will analyze all of the circumstances of your specific case to make sure you know who can be held liable in the eyes of the law.
Under New Jersey common law, a person filing a claim must establish whether a landlord owed them some duty of care, and how a breach of that duty led to an injury. Premises liability applies to accidents that occur on property other than your own. The duty of care by a landlord depends on the status of the visitor. The three main category of visitors are:
- Business Invitee
A business invitee is someone who is allowed on the property because the owner is allowing the premises to be open to the public for business. This type of visitor is permitted to be on the property, but oftentimes limited in where they are allowed to go.
In Maria Irizarry v. Pathmark Stores, Inc., we see how important it is for landlords to ensure that their stairways meet OSHA’s standards for business invitees. In this case, Irizarry arrived at the supermarket for her scheduled pick-up time for photographs she had ordered. That day, the store was distributing the photos from their employee break room, which was located separately, but nearby the supermarket. When she was directed to go to the break room, she did not find anything there aside from empty tables and chairs. In her attempt to search for an employee, she then proceeded to walk up a concrete stairway connected to the break room. Once she discovered that the stairway only led to a compressor room, she turned around and, while descending the stairway, slipped and fell injuring her back. Upon investigation by an expert engineer, it was discovered that the stair she fell on was in violation of OSHA standards for a stairway, and in a highly dangerous condition. As a result, the court found that the evidence showed the supermarket was at fault.
Residential and commercial tenants of a property are also included in the “business invitee” category. It is the property owner/manager’s duty to ensure that dangerous hazards in areas where these tenants are permitted are repaired in a timely manner and warned of any hidden defects that may cause injury. Usually, this is done by putting up signs, cones, and other signage or announcements to warn people of any kind of hazard. Additionally, these signs, warnings, and announcements usually indicate where a business invitee is allowed to be on the property.
In Ransow v. Harmon Grove Towers Condominium Association, a condominium-building resident slipped and fell on a wet staircase which was built and maintained by the association. Although the staircase was built with concrete, it was painted over with an epoxy paint which reduced the friction on it. The court found that the staircase would not have been slippery and hazardous if it had not been painted over. Wetness of a freshly painted staircase is reasonably foreseeable, and the landlord was held responsible for the slip and fall of the resident.
Licensees are people who have legal permission to be on another’s property. The owner or manager of a property does not have to inspect and perfect a property for a licensee’s visit, however such visitors must still be warned of known dangers on the property. An example of a licensee would be construction or third-party maintenance workers who are asked to enter the property by an owner or manager, perhaps to repair something. Social guests attending a party or event, or just plain visiting someone, also fall into this category of licensee. Here again, though, liability may not fall entirely on the property owner or manager. It depends on the individual circumstances of each case.
In Daniel Nunez v. Luis Pino, for example, Nunez was the boyfriend of the homeowner’s daughter. He was visiting one night and the weather started getting very inclement due to heavy snowfall. His girlfriend’s mother (Mrs. Pino) told him that he should start thinking about what time he would want to leave due to the bad weather. On his way out, Nunez slipped and fell on ice that had built up on the exterior stairs. He suffered an ankle splint, requiring a plate, nine screws to the ankle, and a second surgery to remove one of the screws. A medical expert said that Nunez would continue to suffer intermittent pain.
In their defense, the Pino family’s attorney showed that there were outdoor lights illuminating the steps as well as handrails, and the ice was clearly visible according to his girlfriend. As a result of all facts presented, the jury found Nunez was 75% liable for his own slip and fall accident, and the homeowners were only 25% responsible. Due to New Jersey’s modified comparative negligence rule, the Nunez was not able to recover any compensation because he was more at fault than the Pino family for his slip and fall injury.
Finally, trespassers do not nearly have the same amount of rights as the other two categories of visitors. An owner or manager of a property does not owe a trespasser much duty of care, because trespassers are not supposed to be on the property, especially in the eyes of the law. The owner of a property usually only has the duty of care not to intentionally, maliciously, and/or recklessly cause harm to the trespasser. For example, if a trespasser goes into a closed store after hours, is injured after a slip and fall down a flight of stairs due to a hazard, they will likely not be able to recover compensation.
Are Parties Other Than a Landlord Responsible?
If there was a third party involved in your slip and fall injury, and you believe them to be at least partially responsible, they might be. Oftentimes, landlords hire third-party maintenance or property management companies to carry out daily tasks for them. Some of these delegated responsibilities include trash removal, snow and ice removal, landscaping work, and general building maintenance. Having management companies and/or contractors handling the maintenance of the property does not mean the landlord is completely free from their obligations. We find that these entities will share liability for injuries with the landlord in some cases.
Liability may be extended to these third parties along with the landlord if they failed to fulfill their contractual responsibilities. For example, if a landlord did not provide their maintenance crew with proper equipment, or did not want to fund buying the proper equipment to make repairs, the landlord would be primarily responsible. However, if a maintenance crew was given one job to do, and they did not do it properly or made damages to the property worse, then both the landlord and maintenance group could be held responsible.
Dangers of a Slip and Fall Accident Down the Stairs
Slipping and falling down stairs sounds like a minor issue, but in reality such accidents could result in very serious injuries. A fall down the stairs could lead to a strain in your:
More catastrophic risks associated with falling down the stairs are:
- Hip fractures
- Spine injury (even paralysis)
- Neck injury
- Shoulder injury
- Broken bones
- Cuts and bruises
- Internal bleeding
- Head injuries, including traumatic brain injury
After looking at all of the possible injuries, it is made evident that serious injuries can come from a slip and fall down the stairs. These injuries can range from small cuts and bruises to a fatality.
Steps to Take After a Slip and Fall Down the Stairs
If you have been injured in a slip and fall down a stairway in New Jersey, you need to make sure to take the right steps to ensure your own safety, protect your rights, and help prove your case moving forward. Below are some things we recommend you should do:
- Seek medical help, as your health should always be a top priority
- Report the incident
- Document all of the details (with pictures/video, in writing, etc.)
- Do not give verbal or written statements to anyone
- Call an expert attorney
After you make sure that you are well enough to move, you should report the incident to a medical professional, your insurance, the landlord (in writing), and the property manager (if applicable). This reporting will be in your best interest because you will have written proof of the incident occurring, the results of it, the severity of the injury, and other factors such as missed work days.
We advise that you keep these reports very brief, as you are likely still in shock after a slip and fall incident, and do not want to give inaccurate information that may be used against you once you and your attorney are ready to pursue compensation for any damages you may have suffered. Make sure to save all documents pertaining to the incident for your own records, and to share with your attorney.
Options for You to Recover Damages
If you or a loved one are injured in a slip and fall down a stairway on someone else’s property, and the direct cause of it was due to the landlord’s negligence, you may be entitled to compensation. Here are the usual options when pursuing a slip and fall down stairs injury case:
- Filing an insurance claim
- Filing a lawsuit
- Reaching a settlement
Filing an Insurance Claim
Generally, filing an insurance claim is the first course of action when someone is injured in a slip and fall accident. This is because the person or entity that owns the property or is responsible for the maintenance of a property the accident occurred on will usually be held liable for the incident if their negligence caused the injury. The person or entity that owns any type of property will almost always have liability insurance in place to cover any accidents that occur on the premises. You and your attorney will always check to see if those liable have insurance.
Filing through insurance may seem like a good option, but that’s not always the case. You are essentially telling the insurance company that their policyholder is at fault for causing your injury and that they should now compensate you. But through the insurance claim option, the insurance company’s own people will investigate the accident, and determine whether or not their policyholder was truly at fault for your slip and fall down a staircase. Even if they do decide in your favor, it is the insurance company that will calculate what they think you are owed. This is where an attorney’s knowledge of prior settlement amounts and negotiation skills will be valuable to your case.
Filing a Lawsuit
If a claim with the insurance company does not go the way you had hoped, you can take it a step further by filing a lawsuit. A slip and fall accident will fall under a civil lawsuit if you decide to pursue this option. If you decide to file a lawsuit against a landlord, you will be the “plaintiff”, or the person who is bringing forth an accusation against the landlord or the “defendant,” who you claim breached their legal duty and obligation to you. As the plaintiff, you can ask the court to recognize that the defendant committed a legal wrong, and you can request a specific or general solution. We find that most commonly in cases like this, a plaintiff will request that the court force the defendant to compensate the plaintiff for losses.
If you decide to pursue this option, your attorney will need to submit a formal “complaint” to the court. The purpose of a complaint is to make it clear that whoever you are suing was at fault and not acting in accordance with the laws. A complaint will also show why and how the defendant(s) were responsible for the slip and fall down a stairway that led to injury. Finally, there will also be a request in the complaint asking the court to order the responsible party to compensate you for damages suffered.
The lawsuit process can sometimes be a better option than an insurance claim in some regards, and not so much in others. A lawsuit can have a much more fair outcome than an insurance claim because your attorney, the judge, the court employees, and a jury have no personal stake in your case and, therefore, have a better chance of reaching unbiased decisions.
One key difference between an insurance claim and a lawsuit is that in a lawsuit you will be fully responsible for investigating your claim, or hiring a third party to investigate. Another significant thing to think about is that a lawsuit may be more time consuming, and mentally and financially demanding. This is why you should hire a highly competent attorney to do all of the hard work for you while you recover from your injuries and carry on in your daily life.
Reaching a Settlement
Most of the personal injury cases we handle end up with a settlement. This is essentially when the parties involved in a dispute decide to resolve it outside of court and privately, usually with the attorneys from both sides negotiating and reaching an acceptable amount to both sides. The settlement process ends with the accused party agreeing to pay the injured party and the injured party agreeing to drop the claim.
There are many ways a settlement can happen. It doesn’t always come after an insurance claim or a lawsuit being filed. A settlement can happen all on it’s own too if the parties agree to resolve it that way on their own. Settlements are usually the most efficient way to resolve a slip and fall down a stairway accident, and usually leaves both parties content with the resolution.
Time May Not Be on Your Side
Every state has certain limitations on how long you have in order to file a civil lawsuit after a particular incident has occurred. Depending on the type of case you are pursuing, the time limitations usually vary. This is called the “statute of limitations.”
In New Jersey, the statute of limitations for a personal injury lawsuit is two years. This means that within two years of your slip and fall injury, you must go to court and file a lawsuit against the person or entity responsible for your injury. The “timer” starts from the time of the incident. If you happen to miss this timeline, the court system of New Jersey will be forced to refuse your case and, most likely, you will not be able to recover compensation. That’s why we recommend contacting an attorney immediately after you slip and fall down a stairway.
Slip and Fall Down Stairs Statistics
Falls are one of the most common causes of injury in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), about 1 in 5 falls result in a serious injury such as broken bones, strains, and head or neck injuries. Stairway falls are a leading cause of accidental deaths among older adults, and represent anywhere between 7-36% of total falls, according to various studies. Muscle strains account for about one-third of stair-related fall injuries. Every year, there are about one million injuries resulting from a slip and fall down a flight of stairs and about 12,000 people die each year as a result. In 2015, the total medical costs for falls accounted for about $50 billion, according to the CDC. As the second leading cause of accidental injuries in the United States, falls simply cannot be ignored because they are far too common.
Frequently Asked Questions
It depends. In order for a landlord to be held responsible for your injury if you slip and fall down the stairs in New Jersey, you need to be someone who is allowed on the premises. This would include being an invitee, licensee or someone else who is legitimately supposed to be present on the property in any way, whether you are an employee, a visitor of a tenant, or an actual tenant of the building. Believe it or not, even trespassers have some rights to sue a landlord in New Jersey. A landlord usually owes trespassers a basic duty of care which can be along the lines of not purposely or maliciously causing injury to a trespasser. Even if you are a trespasser, a landlord cannot, for example, push you down the stairs, hit you, or do anything else to intentionally hurt you.
Premises liability law essentially considers whether a slip and fall accident down stairs was reasonably foreseeable. An accident would be reasonably foreseeable if an average person would have anticipated that an accident could occur based on the condition of the stairway. This also includes whether an owner made a reasonable effort to keep the property repaired, safe, and/or provided some form of warning if a dangerous condition was present but not yet fixed.
New Jersey is one of the few states that allows a bystander claim in an accident, such as a slip and fall down the stairs. In order for this claim to be made, the bystander must have been within some sort of dangerous zone involving the incident that made them a victim or could have made them a victim. For example, this bystander claim would apply if a person who fell down the stairs landed on top of you, or if the person who fell was carrying packages and the contents spilled out and hit you.
If someone you love has lost their life due to someone else’s negligence that caused them to fall down a flight of stairs, you may be able to recover damages to cover all expenses that stem from the incident, and to compensate those who have been affected by the death. In New Jersey, you will have to prove that the slip and fall down stairs occurred because the landlord or management entity was careless and negligent, which directly caused the death. Additionally, you will have to prove that the deceased person would have been able to recover damages if they had survived their injuries. Not all family members may recover compensation, and there is a hierarchy of who can receive what share of the compensation if you win the case.
People would expect that private and public building stairways will be maintained and repaired for safety any time they are entering such places. When this is not the case, serious (even fatal) consequences may arise. If you are to secure the compensation you justly deserve, you will need the support of the highly competent and determined legal team here at Rosenblum Law. We put decades of litigation experience and unrivaled legal expertise on your side to ensure you get the best possible chance to recover physically and financially. If you or a loved one have been injured in a slip and fall down the stairs accident, don’t hesitate to take the crucial first step on the road to recovery. E-mail or call 888-815-3649 for a free consultation.