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Stairway Accidents

Believe it or not, in the field of personal injury, there is a whole specialty, or perhaps we should call it a subspecialty, on stairway cases. These cases involve slips or trips and falls that occur on stairways. There is no shortage of data on such accidents. The Consumer Products Safety Commission has collected much of it over the years. Other professions are attuned to safety issues. Designers and architects are always mindful of what the safest configuration will be in constructing a stairway. Locally, of course, we look at the building codes of the relevant city or town. Also, we are bound by the State’s Building Code and The Sanitary Code, both of which address stairway safety. There is also something that is known as the International Building Code Handbook. It too speaks of stairways and how they can be made safe.

One provision that is crucial to consider is dimensional uniformity. A significant safety feature involves the risers (the ones that are height of each stair) and the treads (the ones that are the depth of each stair) leading from one landing to the next. The concept is that nothing should interfere with the rhythm of the stair user. The codes permit only very slight variations in riser height and tread depth. Again, you can find all the specific requirements in the various building codes.

A factor that is sometimes encountered in these cases is the phenomenon of the single step. When encountered, your lawyer should view them, as many experts do, as inherently dangerous. Sometimes when you enter an establishment there might be a single step. The feeling among many in the field, with which I agree, is that the user is not conditioned to expect a single stair.

The science or the notion of human factor engineering comes into play, a field described as the connection of engineering and psychology.

In any stairway case you have to be concerned with lighting, the type of surface that constitutes the stairway, and the coefficient friction. For some of these issues you will need an expert. You also have to be mindful of the type of footwear that the client was wearing at the time he/she suffered the injury. Those are issues that are almost always guaranteed to come up in any stairway case.

Recently, I was involved in a case where the maintenance of the restaurant’s floor became an issue. Our argument was that the floor was not treated properly in that the proprietor failed to use the proper cleaning agents in his rather infrequent cleaning periods. If the proper ones had been used, we argued, the grease in that restaurant would not have built up and the floor would not have been dangerous. That almost invokes the notion of a mode of operation and the highest court in Massachusetts in the last 10 years has spoken about how a mode of operation of an establishment can constitute negligence. Sheehan v. Roche Brothers Supermarkets, Inc., 448 Mass. 780 (2007).

Another case in which I was privileged to be involved was a fall with very serious injuries at a major public facility in the Boston area. The gentleman who sustained these very bad injuries had fallen on a staircase that at first looked very safe. Yet when I did the inspection I found a few things that supported our argument of negligence, for on this stairway there was no accessible handrail. The handrails were positioned at the extreme edge of the left side and right side of the stairway. In contrast, on another stairway in the building, not where the client fell, the handrails were much closer together and those were thereby accessible to somebody was walking down the middle of the stairway. That allowed me to argue that there should have been an intermediate handrail in the subject stairway or that the handrails that were provided should have been positioned as they were at the other exit way. Additionally, there were some non-slip rubber markings at the edge of the two very top and two very bottom treads of this stairway. Because the client fell on the middle treads (and not only in the middle of the stairway in the left or right sense), several steps down the stairway as he was proceeding down, that afforded us another argument: there should have been non-slip markings or tape on the edge of every tread. Certainly this would not have been a high burden or expense for this very large public facility. Yet, that safety tape was not on every step. A successful conclusion was reached on a case where a less experienced attorney might have thought that the subject stairway was perfectly safe.

The bottom line is that there is a whole science to a slip, trip, or a fall on stairways. The design and maintenance of stairways is not to be taken lightly. Yes, your lawyer should be mindful of that and nothing substitutes for a personal inspection of the stairway by people versed in this so-called science. That includes your lawyer. As I explained in describing the accident involving serious injuries in the major public facility, an attorney must compare it to other stairways in the very same facility. A thoughtful inspection may well find reasons for why the client sustained an accident.

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