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Handling the Slip-and-Fall Claim
By Kevin M. Quinley CPCU, AIC, ARM

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Property owners often grapple with liability claims from slip and fall accidents. Claims may come from customers, business visitors, or anyone walking across your property. Injuries from slip and fall accidents can range from minor scrapes to soft tissue injuries to serious fractures with complications.

Businesses face slip and fall claims from a seemingly endless variety of scenarios: walkways too slick from rain, snow, ice or sleet; walkway surfaces hazardous because of spilled liquid or other debris. Floors can be too waxed or rugs can be bunched up, causing a slip or fall hazard. Carpet companies have even faced lawsuits from claimants saying a rug’s geometric design mesmerized them and caused them to trip and fall!

Adjusters and businesses can take some simple steps, however, to launch an effective defense of slip and fall claims. Here are some essential do’s and don’ts in investigating the slip and fall claim:

DO get good color photographs of the accident scene. Use a 35 millimeter camera. Get photos from different angles -- from the left, right, from above and close to ground level. Take photos as quickly as possible, before the accident scene changes due to weather, reconstruction or renovation. These may become key pieces of evidence.

DO check for existence of debris or defects. Was there something on the surface that caused the slip and fall? Water? Ice or snow? Spilled oil or grease? A broken orange juice container? Is the walking surface slick or is there good traction? Find out! Expect a claimant to allege some defect with the surface.

Typically the injured claimant alleges that the premises were dangerous due to a foreign substance on the walking surface. In grocery stores, it might be spilled milk. In front of a business, it might be uncleared ice or snow on the sidewalk. In an office building, it might be water from a condensation pipe, or tracked in on the shoes of other pedestrians.

DO check for prior accidents, complaints or warnings. This is key in terms of liability or lack thereof. Often, injured claimants allege that a property owner either knew -- or in the exercise of reasonable care -- should have known about a premises defect. If a claimant discovers that a property owner was warned about a hazardous condition and failed to correct it, that often cripples the defense of the slip and fall case. Alternatively, if the claimant can learn that there have been prior accidents due to the same condition -- that can be used to show that the property owner knew of a problem and perhaps failed to address it.

These items the claimant would be unlikely to discover during a claim, but would be likely to research vigorously after filing a lawsuit. The so-called discovery process would probe into maintenance records, complaint logs, prior incidents and claims.

DO interview any witnesses. If there were witnesses who saw the accident, get written statements from them as soon as possible. Get names, addresses and phone numbers. If there is a claim or lawsuit, it may come months or years later, by which time the bystanders have moved or have their memories dimmed

DO NOT assume that people can’t make claims if their accidents were unwitnessed. It is a common misconception that an injured person must have a witness to recover for injuries from a slip and fall. While it certainly helps the claimant if he or she -- as the injured party -- has a witness, there is no legal requirement.

Ask the bystanders also for information such as:

How did the person fall?
Do you know what caused the person to slip and fall?
Did the person show any sign of injury?
Did the person complain of any injury?
Did the person say anything after the slip or fall about why it happened?
Was the person carrying anything?
Did they see the condition of the walking surface? What was it like?
DO get “negative statements” from bystanders who saw nothing. Claim investigators call this a “negative statement.” This forecloses the possibility of the injured party later credibly claiming that there were three witnesses to the accident when all three bystanders said right after the mishap that they saw nothing. In time, a negative statement can have a very positive impact on your defense of the slip and fall claim!

DO check the weather. This is particularly crucial is the injured person claims that there was ice, snow or water on the walkway surface which caused a hazard. What was the weather like on the day of the accident? Weather Service reports can tell you: hour by hour temperature, humidity, precipitation, etc. Order one for your area for the date in question. See if it corroborates the claimant’s claim, if weather was alleged to be a contributing cause to the condition of the premises.

DO check sweep or maintenance logs. Do they show that the premises was cleaned, swept or inspected around the time of the accident? How frequently are the premises inspected? Who does the inspection? Is it regular or as needed? Are any written records kept of the inspections? How long before the accident were the premises last checked? Did it mention any foreign object on the floor or premises?

What if you do these things and find out that there was in fact a problem with the premises? Is this wasted effort? Absolutely not! If you find out that there was a “defect” in the premises, it lets you avoid pouring money into a meaningless liability defense. The focus of claim defense can shift to other areas, such as whether a duty was owed, whether the injuries are causally related to the slip and fall, or whether the medical bills and lost wages seem built up.

On the other hand, it is possible that following this checklist will help you lay a solid foundation for launching an aggressive and effective defense.

Use these tips as a way to avoid “slip-ups” in investigating your slip and fall claims.





Kevin M. Quinley CPCU, AIC is Senior Vice President, MEDMARC Insurance Company, Fairfax, VA. He can be reached at kquinley@prodigy.net.

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