What You Have to Prove in Your Slip or Trip and Fall Case

What is known by the public as slip and fall or trip and fall accident cases are, in fact, a fairly technical variety of South Carolina negligence law called “premises liability”. Its technicalities are not unimportant, either: aside from car accidents, premises liability cases probably are the most common kinds of lawsuits in South Carolina. As the name indicates, premises liability law governs the circumstances under which the person who controls specified premises—a certain place—is legally responsible for an injury which occurs at that place. In the most general terms, a premises owner’s obligation is to prevent injury caused by unreasonably dangerous conditions on his property, of which he is aware.

So what is an “unreasonably dangerous condition”? An experienced trial lawyer will tell you that it’s whatever you can convince a jury is an unreasonably dangerous condition, but the case law in South Carolina does provide guidance. A classic example—and the one which is most advantageous for the plaintiff—is if the premises owner, say a shop keeper, allows a building code violation to persist on his property. A stairway with uneven riser height or tread depth; a walkway which is more than allowably slick; a handrail which terminates before the ramp does…the list goes on. Each county and many cities adopt different versions of building codes as they are revised, but all codes include hundreds of specific requirements which are designed to maximize the public’s safety. When building owners do not comply with the codes, they are responsible for injuries that result.

When a premises liability client comes to a lawyer’s office, that lawyer’s first action upon taking the case is to have the premises in question carefully scrutinized for building code violations, which under South Carolina law are, by definition, unreasonably dangerous conditions. Other conditions which can trigger legal responsibility, depending on the specific circumstances, include: a foreign substance on the floor of a store (water, spilled product, etc), dangerous equipment in operation (a forklift moving pallets of products in a home improvement store, a paver or dump truck in a highway work area), and any number of other situations which can cause harm to the public if the premises operator is not sufficiently careful. Once again: an experienced lawyer will tell you that an amazing things about this line of work is the infinite variety of ways in which people, unfortunately, suffer personal injuries.

As noted above, a good premises liability case involves not only a person suffering injuries as a result of a dangerous condition, but proof by the plaintiff that the premises owner knew about, or should have known about, the dangerous condition, before the accident occurred. The law adds “or should have known about” to the equation because it would be all too easy for a premises owner to say, “Well, sure, there were rusty nails sticking up from the floor of my toy store, but I never actually saw them before that child stepped on them and tore up his foot.” Obviously that testimony would have low credibility, but if the law did not include the constructive notice provision—knew or should have known—then the unscrupulous premises owner could avoid liability by saying that he didn’t have actual knowledge of the dangerous condition. Instead, the law says that if a reasonably diligent and observant person would have known about the condition, the premises owner will be charged with that same knowledge.

A final technical component of the analysis is that the dangerous condition has to be latent, i.e. it has to be one that is not open and obvious to the person who encounters it. Take the customer of a department store who slices his hand badly when he is checking out a set of steak knives that he is thinking about buying. Yes, the knives are dangerous; yes, the department store knew they were dangerous; yes, the customer was injured by the known dangerous condition. But the law is not going to provide him with any relief, because the law recognizes that everyone, including the injured customer, is fully aware that steak knives are dangerous if not used properly. Just as person cannot spot a banana peel in the aisle of a grocery store, then walk heedlessly down the aisle, slip and be compensated, he cannot fiddle with a steak knife, cut his hand and then claim the knife shouldn’t have been there. In practice a creative lawyer can find angles for recovery for a deserving plaintiff, but this is the technical rule in these situations.

As we pointed out in the case of car accidents and trucking accidents, the key is that injured people and their families select a lawyer who knows the ins and outs of South Carolina law, is creative enough to score a good result, and will work closely with you to make sure the process works for you, the client. The public has lots of choices for legal services, and there are important differences between and among those lawyers. A lawyer—yes, a lawyer—from Traywick & Traywick is available to speak with you right now—yes, right now—about your case.


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