Stairs and steps obviously present risks. Some are easily recognized, while others are less easy to see. Many people are injured by tripping and falling on stairs in a variety of circumstances.
These staircases can be located in private residences, shopping malls, public transportation facilities and office buildings. Tripping and falling on stairs can lead to significant injuries. The victim may want to claim that the owner of the premises is liable to pay damages.
To establish fault based on a theory of premises liability, the victim needs to prove either that the property owner’s negligence led to the hazard that resulted in the accident on the stairs, or that they were aware or should have been aware of an existing hazard but failed to fix it.
A classic example is when a customer in a grocery store breaks a bottle of juice on the floor, and the store fails to clean it up promptly. If another customer slips and falls on the spilled juice, the store would be liable for negligence, because it failed to remove the hazard or warn of its presence.
Whether a property owner should have been aware of a certain hazard depends on the specific facts of each case. It also depends on what a reasonable property owner could have known and done under the circumstances.
Any fault on the part of the victim would also be considered under the rules of comparative and contributory negligence and may be used to reduce any eventual award of money damages. For example, if the hazard on the stairs was visible, but the victim tripped because they were distracted by their cell phone use, this may reduce the compensation they receive for the accident. Or, they may be prevented from recovering any damages at all.
Can a Government Be Liable for Injuries Suffered on a Stairway?
Whether a government can be liable for injuries suffered on government property is somewhat complicated. The first step in recovering compensation is to determine which government owns the premises, federal, state or local. The doctrine of sovereign immunity does not allow a person to sue a government entity without its permission. But the doctrine of sovereign immunity has been changed in recent years, so there are significant exceptions.
If the owner of the property on which a person is injured is the federal government, then the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) would govern the situation. It allows some kinds of lawsuits against the federal government and federal employees if they cause injuries to a person while acting within the scope of their federal employment. There are requirements that must be met.
The first issue is whether the FTCA applies in a particular situation. If a particular kind of suit against the federal government is not specifically allowed under the FTCA, the doctrine of sovereign immunity would probably prevent a person from filing it.
If a claim is allowed by the FTCA, in successful cases the FTCA authorizes an award of money damages to compensate the victim for injuries directly caused by the negligent actions of government employees. The law of the state where the event took place must also allow the claim.
There are a number of exceptions to suits under the FTCA. For example, independent contractors hired by the federal government cannot be sued under FTCA unless they are treated like employees by the government agency that hired them. The contractor, however, might be liable. If the negligent conduct is not within the scope of employment of the negligent employee, then it is not grounds for liability on the part of the government.
The first step a person must take if they think their case is allowed is to submit an administrative claim. This claim should be filed with the federal agency that is responsible for the negligence on the property that directly caused the person’s injuries.
For example, if the staircase on which a person is injured is located in a U.S. Post Office, the claim would be filed with the United States Postal Service. A person can use a claim form provided by the federal government for this purpose. Or, a person may want to consult a personal injury attorney with experience filing claims against the government in order to be sure that they do everything as required.
If the federal agency denies the claim for whatever reason, then a person can file a lawsuit in a federal court.
Can a State Government Be Liable for Injuries Suffered on a Staircase?
If the owner of a staircase on which a person is injured is a state or local government, then state government immunity laws, and the exceptions to immunity, would apply. Most states have state tort claims acts that have been modeled on the FTCA. These acts either eliminate immunity for state government and its agencies with exceptions for certain kinds of cases. Or, it would establish immunity for the state, allowing waivers of immunity for only certain kinds of claims.
Another kind of law that limits the immunity of the state and sets up procedures for making claims against the state are state claims acts. These acts usually establish a special court of claims, or a special board or commission to deal with the claims against government entities in the state. They sometimes also limit damages or provide for certain exceptions to liability. States that have state claims laws are Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio.
Thirty-three states limit the amount of money damages that a person may recover in a claim against the state government. Twenty-nine states do not allow a person to recover punitive damages in a claim against the state government.
There are several state immunity statutes that limit a state’s liability for injuries caused by defects on real property, such as stairs. Other states limit their liability by defining a law standard of care owed to people who use the property of the state government.
The result of this is that a person injured on the property would have to encounter some defect that was caused by truly egregious negligence and not just the ordinary kind that may qualify for an award of damages in the usual case. Or the defect would have to present some unusual type of danger or risk of harm.
As with claims against the federal government, a person must follow certain special procedures before filing a lawsuit against the state in a civil court of general jurisdiction. The victim must provide written notice to the government before filing a lawsuit. Every state has its own requirements regarding notification, such as when it must be given and what content the notice must have.
It would probably be best to consult a personal injury lawyer experienced in government tort claims if you have been injured on stairs owned by a government or government agency.
Can Local Governments Protect Themselves with Government Immunity?
Many states have laws that protect local governments from personal injury liability that might result from their regular governmental activities. Some states have considered the construction and maintenance of public stairways as a regular governmental activity, and they shield local governments from liability for injuries suffered by people who use public stairways.
But some states do not protect local governments, so a person would want to determine the state of the law in the locality in which they are injured.
Does This Mean Odds of Recovery Are Low?
This does not mean that the odds of recovery are low or non-existent. It only means that a person has to be well acquainted with the types of lawsuits for stairway accidents that are possible against the level of government that owns a particular facility. A victim then must understand any special procedures that must be followed and must be prepared to follow them.
The law in some states protects local governments from liability for injuries suffered by a user of public stairways, but there are sometimes exceptions to immunity if the defective condition on a stairway is excessively dangerous and obvious. So, for example, if the unsafe conditions on the stairway are obvious enough that the local government should have known about it, a person who is injured as a direct result of the conditions may be able to collect damages for premises liability.
Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer for Injuries Suffered on a Public Stairway?
If you were injured in an accident caused by a defective condition in a public stairway, you should consult an experienced personal injury lawyer to learn about your legal options.
A lawyer can identify which government entity owns the staircase and then thoroughly research government immunity laws in your state. Your attorney will be able to determine whether or not recovery for your injury is possible and the procedures that must be followed to win an award of damages for you.