A Client Question: I Tripped and Fell, Can I Sue?

I pick up the phone in my office and hear a woman ask, “I tripped and fell; can I sue?” Sometimes the person is more direct, saying, “I tripped and fell and want to sue.”

Our system of civil law allows you to sue a person if the person (or organization) caused your injuries through negligence or deliberate action. To seek damages – what we commonly call “to sue” – requires that you meet two criteria:

  1. You must have suffered damages. This requirement may seem obvious. If I trip and fall, land on the ground, get up, dust myself off and keep walking, then I have suffered no damages. If I trip and fall, twist my ankle, require a soft cast and have limited movement for several weeks, I have suffered damages. If I break a bone in my hand and hurt my back, tear my best suit, spend a week in the hospital and miss six months of work due to medical rehabilitation, then I have suffered significant damages.
  2. The other person or party must have caused this accident through their negligence or direct action. It is not enough that you trip and fell; the other person must have caused you to trip or fall.

Let’s take a closer look at these two requirements of a slip and fall or trip and fall case.

Damages in a Slip and Fall or Trip and Fall Case

This point may seem obvious, but to sue someone for damages, you must suffer damages. New York State law does not set a minimum level of damages for a trip and fall case (New York Law does set minimum requirements for damages caused in motor vehicle accidents). Your damages can consist of physical injuries or damaged property.

What constitutes a physical injury? Those damages could include broken bones, fractures, damaged vertebral discs, and ligament or muscle injuries. Some injuries are dramatic. It is easy to think of broken bones as major physical injuries. Indeed, I have settled trip and fall cases with broken bones for large sums of money. However, you need not break any bones to sustain damages. For example, I represented a client who slipped on ice that Metro North failed to remove and that incident left the woman with damages to her neck and muscles that required surgery and extensive rehabilitation. She collected $265,000 in damages.

I have had clients contact me and almost apologize that they did not suffer more damages. You can seek compensation through the courts for any physical injury you suffered; a person need not suffer a dramatic injury to collect damages. You should not be put off by insurance companies that try to intimidate you because you did not suffer a major injury. If a fall leaves you bruised and hurt or with twisted, torn or damaged ligaments, tendons or muscles, you may be entitled to seek compensation for your damages. For example, I represented an elderly woman in Suffolk County who slipped and fell on some spilled water at her local supermarket. The incident left her with bruises on her chin and thigh and pain in her shoulder and hip. We settled that case for $8,000.

You can also seek damages for damaged or lost property in a slip and fall case. If you are carrying something of value – say an expensive vase – and you trip and fall because of the actions of another and you break that vase, you may seek compensation to replace the vase.

The Cause of Your Trip and Fall: The Negligence and Direct Act of Another

To prevail in a trip and fall or slip and fall lawsuit, we need to prove that the defendant’s negligence caused the accident. That negligence can take many forms ranging from poor design to poor maintenance to failing to take care of a dangerous situation. While I could list a number of my highest value cases (e.g., $560,000 for a slip and fall on a stairway), I want to offer you a range of causes for slip and fall cases that you may encounter:

  • A homeowner installs a brick walkway, but the walk creates an uneven surface. My client trips over the uneven surface and broke some bones in her face. She collected $135,000 in damages.
  • A bank operates an ATM in a parking lot. My client used the ATM and slipped on uncleared ice. The client broke his ankle that required surgery. We settled the case for $160,000.
  • A building owner fails to maintain the cement steps leading to his building. Over time, the steps begin to crumble. My client fell on those bricks and hurt her wrist. She collected $20,000.
  • A puddle developed in a Bronx 7-11 store. The store personnel knew of the danger and failed to act to either warn patrons (e.g., put up a caution sign) or to remove the danger (e.g., mop up the water). My client slipped and fractured his pubis. We settled the case for $60,000.
  • A landlord fails to clear the ice in front of his building. My client falls and fractures his ankle. The case settles for $150,000.
  • In another supermarket case, a client slips and falls on some spilled water, injuring her right shoulder. We settled for $9,000.
  • A woman walks through the parking lot at a catering hall, steps into an uncovered hole, twists her ankle. She received $5,000 for her injured ankle.

In all of these cases, there was a cause of the incident that led to the client’s injuries. The amount of compensation varies both because of the severity of the injury and the amount of comparative liability.

However, I do have clients contact me with very real injuries in cases where we cannot prove negligence. A few weeks back, a woman contacted me about a fall in front of a local store. We examined the location and took photographs. There was nothing wrong with the sidewalk so negligence did not cause her injury. Another client contacted me about slipping through the gap at a NYCTA subway station that resulted in a twisted ankle. We went to the station together and measured the gap. There was no negligence, as the gap was within acceptable guidelines. Unable to demonstrate that negligence caused these injuries, we had no basis to sue.

In a slip and fall case, remember that to sue a person or company, you need to suffer measurable damages and those damages had to result from the negligence or direct act of another. If you cannot meet both requirements, you will have no basis to sue.

If you have questions about injuries suffered in a slip and fall case, you may want to consult a New York personal injury attorney experienced with slip and fall and trip and fall cases. I will be glad to answer your questions and assist you.

I hope you found this information helpful. Please call or email me if you have comments, questions or would like assistance with a slip and fall case. You can also visit my website.

Carol L. Schlitt
New York Personal Injury Attorney