We recently settled a case against MiddleOak Insurance Company for $300,000 on behalf of a Marietta woman who slipped and fell on unsafe stairs leading to her condo. Ms. S broke her elbow in the fall, requiring two surgeries to repair, and she had over $100,000 in medical bills.
Ms. S lived at a condo complex in Marietta, Georgia. The stairs leading to her apartment looked like this:
The green you see on the the tread of the staircase is astroturf that was old and very worn down and extremely slippery when wet. One day, it was raining and Ms. S took her dog for a walk. She slipped on the astroturf and fell, breaking her right elbow. She was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a radial head fracture and a fracture to her ulna. She had surgery the next day, another surgery two weeks later and months of physical therapy before she recovered.
The condo association replaced the stairs a couple of months after Ms. S’s fall. The new stairs look like this:
As you can see, the new stairs are quite different from the old stairs and much safer. We retained an engineering expert who reviewed the pictures of the old stairs and determined that they violated local building codes in a number of ways. The landings were uneven, each stair was a different height, there was no handrail on the left side and the astroturf was improper and never should have been put on the stairs.
We also interviewed several of Ms. S’s current and former neighbors and discovered that the stairs had been like that as long as anyone could remember, the astroturf was at least 10 years old, that there was a similar fall several years ago and that Ms. S and her neighbors had made multiple complaints and requests to repair the stairs but that the condo association had never done anything.
The Legal Challenge
Slip and fall cases like these are called premises liability lawsuits. Georgia law has a rule called the “prior traverse” rule, which says that if a person has walked over the area that caused their fall, they’re considered to know that it is unsafe and can’t sue if they’re injured. In most situations, the prior traverse rule makes sense, as people shouldn’t be able to sue if they know an area is unsafe and walk through it and are injured.
In a normal case, the prior traverse rule would prevent Ms. S from recovering for her injuries because she had walked up and down these stairs several times every day and knew they were unsafe and that the astroturf was slippery when wet. However, these stairs were the only way in and out of her condo and she didn’t have a choice but to walk up and down them to get to and from her home.
In situations like this, Georgia law has what’s called the “necessity doctrine.” The necessity doctrine is an exception to the prior traverse rule and allows a person to recover for their injuries if the area that causes their injury is the only way in and out of their home. The law says that a person shouldn’t be a prisoner inside their own home due to unsafe conditions like these steps. The necessity doctrine also encourages landlords to keep their properties safe and in good condition because the landlords know they can be held responsible if someone is hurt by an unsafe condition on their property.
Using the necessity doctrine, we filed a lawsuit against the condo complex. We used the engineering expert and Ms. S’s current and former neighbors to prove that the stairs were unsafe, violated building codes and that the condo complex knew about the stairs and didn’t do anything to fix them. We ultimately won a $300,000 settlement for Ms. S.