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Slip and fall cases on stairs can be tricky and are doubly so when the alleged problem lies in their construction. When someone falls on stairs the first inquiry is whether the fall resulted from the way they were built, a static defect, or from some liquid or slippery substance. When you have a static defect case and are arguing that the fall resulted from the steep design of the stairs, or unevenness or the lack of a handrail, you have a tough way forward. Sometimes statutes help such as the one requiring handrails for more than 3 steps.
In a recent Georgia slip and fall decision, the appellate court considered whether the trial judge should have thrown out the case. There were only two stairs involved so a handrail was not required.
The case arose when the plaintiff went to her mother’s funeral at a church in Georgia. Afterward, she started to leave through the door of the fellowship hall. She had entered the church through that door. The deacon told her not to use the door and instructed her to go out through the back door. She did what she was told and went out the back door. There were two stairs leading to a concrete floor, which she’d never used before. She missed the second stair and fell. She broke her leg and suffered other injuries. She would later testify that the stairs were too narrow to see the second stair and that they were uneven. She’d reached for a handrail, but there was none.
The deacon was aware that there was an uneven area of the stairs, and he had been concerned that somebody would fall down. He hadn’t been worried about the handrails, and he admitted during deposition that he’d learned someone else had fallen earlier that day, just minutes before the plaintiff fell. At the pastor’s deposition, he testified that before the plaintiff fell, the church had discussed installing a handrail to make it safer. He also testified that he and the deacon had talked about it being possible that the steps’ narrowness might have caused the fall because they weren’t wide enough for a foot to step on them. He conceded that how the church kept the steps could’ve been better.
The plaintiff sued the pastor, doing business as the church, asking for damages for her injuries from the fall. The pastor moved for summary judgment. He argued he didn’t know of any danger, and she’d failed to use ordinary care for her own safety. His motion was granted, and she appealed. The appellate court explained that under OCGA § 51-3-1, when a property owner or occupier induces others to come on his property for a lawful purpose, he is liable to them for any injuries caused by his negligence in keeping the premises safe. The owner or occupier is supposed to use ordinary care to guard against unreasonable risks of harm of which he has superior awareness. The property is supposed to be in a reasonably safe condition, and those invited are not supposed to be exposed to unreasonable risks or led into a dangerous trap. However, the owner or occupier doesn’t need to insure or warrant safety. It must simply use diligence to discover any potential dangers about which it doesn’t have actual knowledge.
The appellate court explained that the evidence showing the stairs didn’t have a handrail and were uneven, narrow, and steep created a factual issue about whether the stairs counted as a dangerous condition. The pastor claimed there was no evidence of his actual knowledge that the stairs were dangerous. However, the pastor had testified at deposition that before the fall, the church had discussed putting in a handrail for safety purposes. The appellate court found that there was enough evidence for a fact finder to infer the steps were dangerous.
The pastor also argued that the stairs were a static condition of which the plaintiff had equal knowledge. This, too, was a proposition with which the appellate court disagreed. It explained that the plaintiff had testified she’d never used those stairs before, so it couldn’t be presumed she had equal knowledge of the danger. She had also testified she couldn’t see the second step because of how steep and narrow the stairs were. In Georgia, when there is a real factual debate for the jury to mull over, the case has to go to a jury, so the Appellate Court reversed the trial court and the case will now have its day in court.
Atlanta premises liability attorney Christopher Simon has considerable experience representing people who have been injured and families who have lost their loved ones due to negligence and other wrongful conduct, and he is prepared to assist you with a possible claim. If you believe you have a possibly meritorious claim and would like to discuss the options you may have for legal recovery, feel free to contact us to arrange a free case consultation.