By Francis M. Smith
One of the most common causes of injury is a fall to the ground after losing one’s balance or footing. If you suffer such a fall because of a hazard on someone else’s property, you may have grounds for a personal injury claim. Depending on the nature of the fall, these claims are generally referred to as “slip and fall” or “trip and fall” accidents. In many ways these two types of accidents are identical, but there are some key differences that may have relevance to your injury case if you have suffered one of these accidents.
In a slip and fall accident, the walking surface is coated with a substance – water, ice, detergent, ball bearings, etc. – that reduces friction between your feet and the ground or floor, causing your foot to slip out from under you as you shift your weight to take a step. Most frequently this results in a backward fall when your leading foot loses traction with the surface, but forward slips are possible if your back foot slides out of position unexpectedly. Because the majority of slip accidents result in falling backward, the resulting injuries most frequently affect the neck and back, the spine, the pelvis, an outstretched hand, and the back of the head. Backward falls are difficult to catch or brace yourself against, so any impact to these vulnerable areas is likely to be full-force and potentially very damaging. Any blow to the head may result in a traumatic brain injury (TBI), commonly known as a concussion. Recovery from a TBI may take weeks, and life-threatening complications may develop if another blow to the head is sustained during that time. If a neck or back injury results in herniated spinal discs, surgery may be necessary to repair the damage. An outstretetched hand can mean a broken wrist necessitating surgery to mend the fracture.
The physics of a fall caused by tripping are quite different. In these cases, you begin to step forward, but the foot you are about to place in front of you gets caught on some obstacle – a raised segment of broken pavement, a bunched floor mat, a carelessly placed toolbox, or any other object – and you lose your balance and pitch forward. In this kind of accident, if your hands are free and your reflexes are good, most of the force of the impact will usually be focused on your arms (including hands, wrists, and elbows) and knees, as your body instinctively tries to protect your vital areas from injury. Your ankle may also suffer injury if it becomes twisted or compressed during the fall. Torn or strained ligaments, tendons, and muscle tissues are common injuries in accidents like this, as are bone fractures and joint damage. If your hands were full or you were otherwise unable to reach out with your arms to cushion your fall, a trip accident is very likely to result in injury to your face and the front of your head as it strikes the ground. A blow to the head in this manner carries the same danger of traumatic brain injury as a backward fall resulting from a slip.
Another way in which there is a difference between falling injuries caused by slipping versus tripping is the liability of the property owner. Hard to believe, but not all property owners have a duty of care toward all lawful visitors to their property. The duty of care owed to persons on the property depends on several factores. The highest duty is owed to thse on commercial property, where the commercial property owner benefits from foot traffic and has the financial capabilty to purchase insurance to spread the risk of injury to pedestrians. This duty includes making regular inspections of the property to discover any hazards, taking reasonable steps to remedy the hazards they discover, and warning visitors of the existence of the hazard until it can be resolved. If your attorney can prove that the property owner fell short of any aspect of that duty, and that this failure resulted in your accident, then you have a strong case for seeking injury compensation. With regard to residential property, the duty to pedestrians varies on a case by case basis and thorough analysis of the facts by an experienced personal injury attorney is required. Suffice it to say that the duty of the owner of a residential property is not clear cut in all situations.
Of course, the insurance company representing the property owner doesn’t want to pay out injury damages if it can avoid doing so, and will look for any opportunity to dodge responsibility for your injuries. This may mean arguing that the property owner didn’t have a duty to you, or didn't have a reasonable amount of time to become aware of and respond to the hazard, or even claiming that you, the injured plaintiff, were responsible for your own injuries due to carelessness on your part. These defenses may be more difficult for insurance companies to use in cases involving tripping hazards. Tree roots don’t burst through sidewalks overnight, and ladders don’t wander out of storage areas and across walkways. Many tripping hazards are either the result of active carelessness in leaving objects lying around, or have existed long enough for any reasonable property owner to notice. Still, for both types of fall accidents, it’s important to gather evidence as soon as possible after your fall, and to assess what duty the property owner had under the circumstances. An experienced personal injury attorney will be able to help you with these issues.