What Should Slip and Fall Accident Victims do to Prove Liability in their Case?

Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley

Slip and fall accidents in Florida are complicated and fact-dependent. Put another way, slip and fall accidents depend heavily on the actual facts of the claim. All such claims are different and unique in their own specific ways.

Further compounding the issue is the complexity of the laws in Florida, which means successful slip and fall claims require matching a series of actual facts that must be established to the specific laws. This reality requires an experienced attorney, like a Florida injury attorney at Searcy Denney, to navigate the nuances of a claim.

Slip and Fall Accidents in General

Slip and fall accidents are among the most common of all accidents. Slip and fall claims are based on the area of law referred to as “premises liability.” Premises liability claims revolve around accidents that are caused by unsafe conditions on another person’s property. So, for example, if you are at a museum and fall down a flight of stairs because of a defective handrail that breaks off into your hand, you may be able to hold the owner or manager of the museum responsible for your injuries.

In Florida, as with most states, successfully proving a slip and fall claim requires a victim to establish that:

  • The property owner/manager owed a duty of care
  • The property owner/manager breached that duty of care
  • The breach was the cause of the accident on the premises
  • The injuries suffered by the victim were the result of that accident

Proving Fault in a Slip and Fall Accident

Liability is essentially a synonym for fault — a term for fault that is often used in the legal arena. Proving fault is the keystone in establishing a successful slip and fall claim. The following lays out the steps for proving fault in a slip and fall claim in a general sense, including the steps that must be taken before fault can be established. However, establishing fault, in reality, requires a classification of what type of visitor has been injured (i.e., what the purpose of the visit was). In big-picture terms, a victim must:

Collect Evidence and Establish Facts

Like all personal injury claims, the victim must first collect all relevant evidence. Generally speaking, this may include obtaining videos and pictures of the accident scene as it existed at the time of the accident. Specifically, for example, documentation of any conditions that may have contributed to the fall, including conditions like:

  • Slippery substances on the ground or floor
  • Broken or uneven flooring
  • Dangerous terrain
  • Torn carpeting
  • Broken or uneven stairs
  • Defective handrails
  • Obstacles in walkways

It is also helpful for the victim or a family member/friend to immediately document the events exactly as they happened. This will provide necessary details, and since it was written down immediately, it is more likely to be credible than memories that may become stale. Eyewitness accounts should similarly be collected, and medical evidence, such as hospital and treatment records, is similarly critical.

The evidence collected will be critical in developing the series of critical facts, and the more believable the evidence is, the more likely the victim’s version will be found credible. A Florida injury attorney at Searcy Denney is experienced in this critical stage of your claim and will help ensure you have all the evidence needed to establish the facts of your claim.

Show Responsibility

While the owner/manager is responsible for maintaining a reasonably safe property, the victim is also accountable for reasonably avoiding hazards on the property. The property owner/manager and their insurance company may argue that the victim did not accept this responsibility by engaging in some type of careless behavior, such as staring at a phone, wearing inappropriate shoes or outer clothing, deeply engaging in conversations with their friends, or other behavior showing the victim was not reasonably responsible.

They may also require some explanation as to whether the victim had a legitimate reason to be in the area where the slip occurred and may further argue that a reasonable person would have noticed the condition and avoided it.

As is the case with many legal doctrines, “reasonableness” is the standard by which many decisions are made in the law. The easiest way to think of reasonableness is to put yourself in the owner/manager’s shoes and ask yourself, “Was I really paying attention? Could I have avoided this? Was anybody else hurt?” If the answers indicate that you were not really paying attention, a court may find that you are at least partly responsible.

Establish Fault

Liability, or fault, is a question of which party was the cause for any failure to be responsible. Try to convincingly argue that the property owners/managers should have inspected their premises regularly to identify any potentially dangerous conditions that existed. If such conditions were found, the owners/managers should have fixed these conditions within a reasonable amount of time. Again, reasonableness is the key to identifying and fixing dangerous conditions, as well as the adequacy of any warnings posted.

So, for example, if a property owner/manager has not regularly inspected his or her premises, that likely won’t be considered reasonable. Also, if an owner/manager notices a dangerous condition that is easy to fix but does not fix it within, say, a few weeks, or notices a hazardous condition that is hard or very expensive to fix but doesn’t fix it within, say, a year, that also likely won’t be considered reasonable.

Again, the easiest way to think of reasonableness is to put yourself in the owner/manager’s shoes and ask yourself, “What will it take to make repairs or replacements? What would I do if it were my business?” If a victim is found to be at least partly at fault, the court may adjust their damages accordingly. For example, victims may recover 80% of their damages rather than 100%. Again, this is a part of your claim that requires the experience of a Florida injury attorney at Searcy Denney.

Condo Collapse: Everyone Will Point Fingers But Florida Laws Narrow Liability

Tom Hals | Insurance Journal

The collapse of a condominium tower near Miami will set off years of litigation as victims and their families look to find fault among the building’s management as well as engineers, architects and others, according to legal experts.

Disaster struck in Surfside, Florida, on June 24 as a major repair project was beginning, although the cause of one of the worst residential construction failures in the United States is likely to have many contributing factors stretching back years.

“Whether it be architects, engineers or contractors that had any involvement in this building, we’ll be looking at everybody to hold each party responsible for their negligence,” said Daniel Wagner, a real estate lawyer in south Florida, who declined to say if he was representing anyone involved in the collapse.

But it will be a process complicated by finger-pointing and a trend in recent years in Florida law that has made it increasingly difficult to hold parties accountable for construction defects, lawyers said.

Liability in complex disasters often gets parceled out among defendants, with a certain percentage being apportioned to each, legal experts said.

“It’s my professional opinion that everyone is going to blame everybody else,” Wagner said.

The death toll on Monday climbed to 28, and 117 were unaccounted for.

Less than 24 hours after the collapse, the first of at least three lawsuits was filed against Champlain Towers South Condominium Association Inc, run by a volunteer board comprised of owners, for failing to ensure the building’s safety.

Bob McKee, a lawyer who brought a case on behalf of Steven Rosenthal, a resident who survived the collapse, said until another cause can be identified, the presumption is failed maintenance was to blame.

The condo association president warned residents in an April letter that the situation had “gotten significantly worse” since “major structural damage” was identified in a 2018 inspection. The president urged them to support a $15 million assessment for repairs while acknowledging the work “could have been done or planned for in years gone by.”

McKee said plaintiffs will identify other potentially liable parties through the discovery process.

One lawsuit by the family of missing resident Harold Rosenberg also named as defendants Morabito Consultants and SD Architects for failing to warn residents of the danger of collapse.

The lawsuit blamed the Morabito engineering firm, which conducted the 2018 inspection, for allegedly failing to warn the condo association of the need to evacuate the building. The firm was retained again in 2020 and did not warn residents the damage it uncovered two years earlier had not been repaired, the lawsuit said.

Morabito said in a statement that it provided its 2018 report and recommendations to the condo association.

Rene Rocha, a Morgan & Morgan attorney working on the Rosenberg case, said informing the board may not have been enough.

“They could have walked away from the job if they told the board it would be unsafe to proceed this way,” said Rocha. “Obviously, it didn’t happen that way.”

The Rosenberg lawsuit also said it planned to sue Surfside for allegedly failed to hire an independent expert to inspect the building after receiving the 2018 Morabito report.

The condo association declined to comment on the lawsuit, SD Architects could not be reached, and the town did not respond.

Legal experts said the defendants will likely argue there was no evidence that the building was not an immediate risk of collapse.

A Florida judge appointed attorney Michael Goldberg of the Akerman law firm on Friday as a receiver for the condo association, which disclosed on Thursday it had $30 million in property insurance and $18 million for liability. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Michael Hanzman said the insurance “will obviously be inadequate to compensate everyone fully.”

Accountability Difficulty

Residents and their families may have to contend with Florida laws and court rulings that have made it more difficult to hold parties accountable for defects in professional design, construction or code compliance, according to Barry Ansbacher, a Florida attorney who specializes in condo and construction law.

For example, a 2006 law shortened to 10 years from 15 years the window for plaintiffs to sue for certain defects in design and construction and the potential personal liability for architects and engineers has also been narrowed, Ansbacher said.

Court rulings have also limited liability, including a 1985 decision that sovereign immunity protects local government building inspectors.

“Often, by the time something is discovered that was not done properly, the clock has run out and there is no liability,” Ansbacher said.

There is also the possibility of criminal charges.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said she would have a grand jury examine the collapse, although she did not say whether she would consider charges. Florida grand juries can also make recommendations on matters of public policy.

One Florida prosecutor said the most likely charge if someone’s actions led to the collapse would be the crime of manslaughter by culpable negligence.

“To have a crime here you need more than what is presently being reported,” said Dave Aronberg, the state attorney for Palm Beach County. “You have to have someone who knew that destruction was imminent and did nothing about it.”

Priority of Liability Insurance Coverage and Horizontal and Vertical Exhaustion

David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates

Recently, I participated in a webinar involving the horizontal and vertical exhaustion of insurance coverage.  Say what?

This pertains to the PRIORITY of liability insurance coverage and the interface between a general contractor’s (or upstream party’s) primary insurance and the subcontractor’s (or downstream party’s) excess insurance, particularly when the general contractor is required to be indemnified by the subcontractor and named as an additional insured under the subcontractor’s liability policies.

For instance, let’s assume the general contractor has a $2M primary policy and a $5M excess policy.  Its subcontractor has a $1M primary and a $5M excess policy. The general contractor is an additional insured under the subcontractor’s policies and the subcontractor is required to contractually indemnify the general contractor.  An issue occurs caused by the subcontractor’s negligence resulting in a $5M judgment against the general contractor and the subcontractor.

A. Horizontal Exhaustion

Under the horizontal exhaustion approach, the court will look primarily to the “other insurance” provision in the policies–specifically, the subcontractor’s excess policy–which will take precedence over the contractual indemnification language. Since the “other insurance” provision in excess policies typically state it is excess over the exhaustion of primary policies, under the horizontal exhaustion approach, the policies would be exhausted as follows relative to the $5M judgment:

1) $1M from subcontractor’s primary policy;
2) $2M from general contractor’s primary policy; and
3) $1M from the general contractor’s excess policy and $1M from the subcontractor’s excess policy, as the excess policies share in coverage after the primary coverage is exhausted.

The general contractor and its insurers do not perceive this to be equitable as it dilutes the indemnification and additional insured requirement. Further, it results in the general contractor’s carriers subrogating to the rights of the general contractor to pursue a separate action against the subcontractor, which gets sent right back to the subcontractor’s excess insurer (as its primary insurance was exhausted) for reimbursement.  Under the above example, the subcontractor’s excess insurer still had a remaining $4M in coverage to reimburse the general contractor’s primary and excess insurer.  This is known as a circular chain of events because the priority of coverage under horizontal exhaustion invariably results in a separate subrogation claim for reimbursement.

B. Vertical Exhaustion

Under the vertical exhaustion approach, the court will look primarily to the contractual indemnification and additional insured language, irrespective of the “other insurance” provision in the excess policy, to avoid the circular chain of events with the general contractor’s carriers pursuing a separate subrogation claim. Under the vertical exhaustion approach, the policies would be exhausted as follows relative to the $5M judgment:

1) $1M from the subcontractor’s primary policy; and
2) $4M form the subcontractor’s excess policy.

The subcontractor’s primary and excess policies would be exhausted BEFORE the general contractor’s primary policy comes into play.  This is designed to avoid the the separate subrogation claim since the subcontractor’s insurance coverage is being exhausted first.

C. Priority of Insurance Coverage

The priority of insurance coverage can become a very significant consideration in sizable claims.  There is a reason parties contractually negotiate insurance coverage in the contract.  For this reason, during the contract negotiation, it is important to appreciate this consideration on the frontend. Consult with counsel and an insurance broker as to the following:

 The contractual indemnification language – make sure it is enforceable in your jurisdiction;
 The additional insured language and applicable insurance endorsements – make sure you get the right endorsement for ongoing and completed operations that covers issues wholly or partially caused by the subcontractor’s (or downstream party’s) negligence;
 The primary and noncontributory language and applicable endorsements in the primary and excess policy-this modifies the “other insurance” provision from a priority of coverage standpoint and you want this in both the primary policy and excess policy; and
 The “other insurance” language in the general contractor’s (or upstream party’s) policy — the objective is to maximize vertical exhaustion of coverage to avoid the circular chain of events discussed above so this may result in manuscript language to the general contractor’s “other insurance” language to reflects its priority.

Claims that involve or rely on construction insurance claim can become complex.  But, insurance is crucial in order to properly assess risk, flow down risk, and manage risk.   In order to evaluate associated risk, it requires consultation with lawyers and insurance brokers and understanding the type of claim exposure relative to the project, and maximizing value of insurance–primary and excess insurance–for which you are an additional insured.