By Francis M. Smith
Most of us walk up and down several flights of stairs every day without giving them a second thought. Sometimes these stairs are as short as the two or three front steps into a building, and other times the stairwell spans several stories. In either case, and all those in between, we trust that the stairs have been properly built and well maintained – and most of the time, our confidence is justified. But on those occasions when it is not, serious injury can result. A fall on stairs is often worse than a similar fall on a level floor surface, for the obvious reason that if you are unable to catch yourself, your fall might continue to the bottom of the staircase or landing. In addition, the hard edges of the stairs present a series of painful obstacles to strike against during a fall. In a serious fall on stairs, broken bones, injured knees, ankles and shoulders, traumatic brain injury, spinal trauma, and neck and back injuries are among the potential injuries that an accident victim can suffer.
Because stairs are such a common feature of the buildings that many of us live and work in, there are certain expectations we share about how they should be designed for safety – and in fact, if a flight of stairs does not meet with these design features and a visitor to the property suffers a fall on them as a result, the property owner and the designers (or builders) may be liable for damages. Any flight of stairs should have steps of uniform depth and rise: that is to say, the steps should not vary in height or in the amount of space on the step's surface. When the height and depth of steps within a staircase vary, it becomes difficult for a person walking up or down the stairs to maintain a regular gait. They might suddenly discover that their foot strikes the next step sooner, or later, than they expected, and the rest of their body is unprepared to adjust quickly enough to maintain their balance.
The steps themselves are not the only necessary design features. Proper handrails are essential safety features on stairs and steps of any height. Handrails should run along both sides of the stairwell, at a height appropriate for the average person to use safely. The handrails should be secure and immobile, whether they are fixed to a wall or rising from the stairs. In addition, adequate lighting should be installed in stairwells to enable a user to see their path clearly. Shadows on stairs can hide imperfections, debris, and other hazards, and total darkness means that a person on the stairs does not see where he or she is placing the next foot, and becomes disoriented.
Though care must be taken when the stairs are first designed and built, the property manager's responsibility to keep the building safe for legitimate visitors extends to maintenance of the stairs as well, and other installations that keep the stairs safe (like railings and lighting). Stairs that see heavy traffic over long periods of time may become worn and smooth along the edges, which makes it easy for a user's foot to slip off the edge of the step. In order to prevent a fall on stairs resulting from worn steps, the property manager should routinely inspect the stairs and if necessary, install non-slip surfacing or nosing or take other action to repair the damaged steps. Objects and debris left on steps present a major hazard to anyone using the stairs, especially if they are carrying packages that make it difficult to see the steps immediately below them. One of the responsibilities borne by a property manager is to ensure that stairs on the property are clean and free of any debris or items that could present a tripping or slipping hazard for visitors.
In any personal injury suit resulting from a fall on stairs, the lawyer working for the property owner's insurance company will almost certainly try to argue that the injured person was negligent or careless in some way, and therefore bore some responsibility for their own injuries. If they successfully convince a jury that you were negligent of your own safety, the total amount you can collect in injury compensation may be reduced. For safety, you should always have one hand on the handrail while climbing or descending stairs. You should move at a reasonable speed and take the steps one at a time. If you have bags or packages to carry, it is safer to make several trips with fewer items each time than to try to carry them all at once, which may make it impossible to hold the handrail or to see the steps ahead of you. By observing these reasonable safety precautions, you may prevent a painful and damaging fall on stairs – and if you do suffer a fall despite your caution, it will be much harder for the insurance company to dodge responsibility for your injuries by placing the blame back on you.
If you or a loved one have been injured in a serious accident, please contact me or call me at 908-233-5800 for a free consultation.