One of the most dangerous areas of property are stairways. Though stairs will always have some inherent danger, property owners must take care to ensure stairs do not pose any more risk to guests than necessary. When an individual suffers a fall on stairs, the injuries resulting can be devastating. If the fall was the result of carelessness on the part of the property owner, the injured individual can recover for his medical expenses, pain, suffering, and lost income. Below is an overview of claims arising from falls on stairways.
Conditions Of StairwayAs the court noted in Wagoner v. Dollar General Corp., a property owner must exercise reasonable care under the circumstances to ensure the premise is safe. This includes keeping stairs in a safe condition. The defect may be in the construction of the stairs, the maintenance of the stairs, or the lack of adequate safety features for guest when using the stairs.
Construction DefectsStairs are fairly regulated as far as what appropriate heights, widths, and landing sizes must be. Examples are Kansas regulations 28-4-115 (dealing with stairs for licensed day care facilities), 130-3-1 (dealing with stairs for schools), and 26-40-304 (dealing with stairs for nursing homes). Stairs that contain steps that are too narrow likely have construction defects, as they fail to provide adequate foot space. The same is true of stairs that are too high, leading to guests tripping over the edges. Additionally, construction defects include insufficient materials that give way under the weight of a guest or railings that are not sufficiently attached.
Maintenance DefectsProperty owners must also properly maintain stairs once they have been adequately constructed. This includes ensuring the stairs stay in good condition, as well as ensuring that the stairs are free from any unintended dangers. These include spills, debris, and weather accumulation. A property owner must promptly clear these defects, particularly after the property owner becomes aware of the condition. Even without knowledge, the property owner has an obligation to perform routine maintenance and to perform reasonable inspections. The court will impose liability if it finds that a property owner deliberately failed to inspect the stairs or was careless in its inspection practices.
Lack Of Safety Features As DefectEven adequately constructed and maintained stairs can form the basis of a premise liability claim if the stairs lack adequate safety features. The need for safety features will be controlled by laws—such as the regulations mentioned above—or will be determined by a jury based upon the facts of each case. Common safety features are adequate lighting, handrails, and appropriate landings at designated heights. When these safety features are lacking and result in injury, they are sufficient to create liability for the injuries suffered.
Ownership Of StairwayThe owner of property is generally responsible for the construction and maintenance of the stairway. However, property owners may not be the exclusive party responsible for the safety of the stairs. For example, outside stairways may be maintained by a hired contractor, responsible for clearing ice and applying salt when needed. Stairs in common areas of an apartment or even within an apartment are another example. If the landlord does not permit the tenant to make any alterations to a staircase in an apartment, the liability would be split. The tenant would be responsible for maintaining the stairs and keeping them free from clutter or spills; the landlord would be responsible for the adequate construction of stairs and the adequacy of safety features. Stairs in common areas will be the responsibility of the landlords exclusively, absent any outsourcing of maintenance.
Owners of private residences are also obligated to provide adequate, safe stairs. Regulations are less common for stairs in private homes, even more so for interior staircases. Still, the owner of the home will still be responsible for properly maintaining the stairs and ensuring that the stairs have adequate safety features. The fact that residential stairs are used less frequently and by much fewer people will both be considerations that weigh into what constitutes the exercise of reasonable care. However, absence of all safety features will certainly be an appropriate consideration and private home owners are not immune from liability arising from injuries on stairs.
Actions Of PlaintiffEven though a plaintiff is injured, her own actions must be considered in determining fault for injuries. The fact that a plaintiff was familiar with the stairs, was using a cell phone or otherwise distracted while climbing the stairs, or was quickly ascending the stairs are all relevant considerations. Kansas uses a scheme of determining fault known as comparative fault, in which the plaintiff’s recovery is reduced by the percentage of fault a jury attributes to the plaintiff. However, if the plaintiff is more responsible for the accident than the defendant, recovery is completely barred. Another common factor to consider is in the instances of accumulation of ice: the plaintiff is held to be aware of the precipitation and to act accordingly. Again, these factors are all valid considerations that the jury should weigh, but they do not affect the determination of whether the defendant acted with reasonable care in regard to the condition of the stairs.
When an individual has suffered a fall on stairs, there are many factors that go in to determining if a property owner is liable. The particular defect that caused the fall will determine who is responsible and what must be proven to establish premise liability. After a fall, it is important to contact a competent attorney so that the facts of the case can be weighed and appropriate compensation can be collected.