Litigating Slip, Trip, and Fall Cases in North Carolina

We’ve all been there. Walking on the sidewalk, minding our own business, when all of the sudden, our foot catches the corner of the curb and down we go. Or you’re late for a meeting and running through the parking lot into your office building. The light rain drizzle from last night and 25 degree weather this morning, slip your mind…(pun intended). The resulting injuries and liability issues are often vigorously disputed and, therefore, most commonly litigated. Balancing the rights of landowners, with the need to compensate victims, is a common challenge. In order to protect visitors from injury and themselves from liability, property and business owners must be proactive and take steps to adequately maintain their premises.

In North Carolina, all would-be slip and fall victims fall into two classes: lawful visitors and trespassers. Generally speaking, a landowner owes a duty of reasonable care to lawful visitors. This includes a duty to warn of hazardous conditions. As for trespassers, however, a landowner simply owes a duty to refrain from willful injury. The distinction between a lawful visitor and trespasser is understandable given that the landowner has no reason to expect a trespasser on his property. Note that limited exceptions do exist, for example, where the trespasser is a child, attracted onto the land by a hazardous risk or object.

To establish a slip, trip, and fall cause of action, a plaintiff must prove that a landowner either: (1) negligently created the condition causing the injury, or (2) negligently failed to correct the condition after actual or constructive notice of its existence.

To rebut evidence that it negligently created the condition causing the injury, a business could introduce evidence of preventive measures that it took in order to maintain and control a potentially dangerous area. For example, where a victim falls in a gym shower, the gym might introduce evidence that it installed slip-resistant floors, non-skid mats, and constructed the floor to slope for water drainage.

To succeed on a claim that a landowner negligently failed to correct a condition, the plaintiff must prove that the landowner either knew or should have known of the dangerous condition. For example, where a victim falls on a puddle of shampoo in the aisle of a store, the business should not be held liable for any injuries if the puddle had only been on the floor for a short period of time. The spill or other dangerous condition must have existed for such a length of time that the business had an opportunity to correct the condition.

Finally, with some exceptions, a landowner has no duty to warn and cannot be held liable where the hazardous condition was “open and obvious” to the victim. Where the victim saw or should have seen a dangerous condition that caused the injury, like a large hole in the ground, courts will generally find that the victim cannot recover.

It is important to note that courts typically examine slip, trip, and falls on a case-by-case basis. Each case has its own particular set of facts which will be separately analyzed. Therefore, property or land owners should examine their own business and property and take steps that make sense for their particular situation. Doing so protects visitors from injury and the landowners from liability.

About the author: David’s practice focuses on the field of complex civil litigation, with an emphasis on the defense of trucking and transportation, product liability, and insurance defense cases. For questions about this article, please contact David.

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