As in every state, most New Jersey slip and fall cases alleging a dangerous property condition reach a settlement, with very few claims ever going to trial. But what might a settlement look like? The following example illustrates the key elements and lifecycle of a slip and fall settlement in New Jersey.
Zach and his fiancée, Natalie, decided to take a break from planning their upcoming wedding to spend the weekend in Atlantic City. With front row tickets to see Bruce Springsteen on Saturday night, Natalie insisted that they stop after lunch at the Garden Girl Nail Salon near the boardwalk so that she could get “dolled-up” for their night out.
As the nail technician finished Natalie's pedicure, the technician placed cotton wedges between each of Natalie's painted toes and slipped her feet into special flip-flop sandals to allow the nail polish to dry before Natalie left the salon. Natalie got up to check on Zach, who had been waiting patiently in the lounge area.
As she walked around a corner, her right foot slid on the wet floor. The sandal caught the edge of a rubber mat near one of the nail stations, causing her foot to roll out of the sandal and turn underneath her. As she fell, she instinctively reached for a small portable table with her left hand. When she made contact, the wheeled table rolled away from her, catching her left pinkie and ring finger in an open drawer and bending the fingers backwards as she hit the floor. Natalie screamed.
At the local ER, x-rays showed her right ankle was broken. But Natalie was more upset that her left ring finger was tender, swollen, warm and very painful when she tried to bend it. The doctor explained that she had a tendon injury that is most commonly seen in football players who grab another player's jersey as that player pulls away. The ER physician referred Natalie to an orthopedic surgeon for follow-up and sent her home on one crutch with splints on her left hand and right ankle.
The orthopedic surgeon repaired the tendon surgically with pins. Afterwards, she needed to wear a special splint for up to eight weeks followed by six weeks of physical therapy to regain her range of motion and finger strength.
Natalie worked as a hospital phlebotomist, which required her to use both hands to quickly manipulate tubes, tourniquets and syringes. Her injury required that she take three months away from work.
Additionally, the wedding date was exactly two weeks after the date of her injury and had to be postponed, as did the 10-day honeymoon on a Caribbean cruise. Postponement notices were sent to approximately 200 guests. Food caterers, flowers, musicians, the hotel courtyard and ballroom where the ceremony and reception were to take place -- all were cancelled. Natalie was devastated.
Natalie had two years in which to file a lawsuit for her injury under the New Jersey statute of limitations. (Learn more about this law: How long do I have to file a slip and fall lawsuit in New Jersey?)
Once a settlement offer was accepted, there would be no going back later for more compensation if Natalie needed additional care or treatment. Her attorney wanted to wait until Natalie's condition stabilized before submitting a demand letter to the insurance company.
Six months after Natalie's accident, her attorney sent the letter, claiming that Garden Girl was legally responsible for Natalie's injuries, and describing specifically how the accident occurred.
The letter asserted that Garden Girl was negligent and knew the wet floors created a dangerous condition, especially given that no warning signs were placed around the mopped areas.
The demand letter included an itemized list of Natalie's losses stemming from her slip and fall accident, including the cost of medical care, Natalie's lost income, the unused concert tickets, and the costs of cancelling the upcoming wedding and honeymoon.
Natalie's total out-of-pocket compensatory damages amounted to $14,500 for her medical expenses, $16,000 for the loss of her hospital income, and $9,000 for the wedding and honeymoon cancellations, and $300 for the Springsteen tickets. Her attorney decided that another $36,000 was appropriate to compensate Natalie for her pain, discomfort, and anxiety, as well as the emotional distress from cancelling the wedding and honeymoon, and other suffering. The total demand was $75,800.
In support of the claim, the letter included:
The insurance company responded with a letter rejecting the demand and offering $50,000 to settle the matter. The insurance company asserted that, at the time of Natalie's accident, Garden Girl had been cleaning its premises by mopping the floors, which should have been obvious to customers like Natalie. Also, under the legal theory of comparative negligence, Natalie shared some of the responsibility for her own injuries by: (1) not paying attention to where she was walking to avoid freshly mopped areas of the floor; and (2) not exercising due care to walk slowly and carefully considering that she had cotton between her toes and was wearing special sandals. Learn more about Comparative Negligence in New Jersey Slip and Fall Cases.
In response, Natalie's attorney submitted a statement from another salon customer who helped Natalie after her fall. The customer stated that she also had slipped a few weeks earlier on the salon's wet floors, with no “wet floor” caution signs to warn customers, and advised Garden Girl management that it was a hazard and “someone could really get hurt.”
After several phone conversations between the insurance company and Natalie's attorney, the insurance company made a final offer of $62,500. Natalie discussed the offer with her attorney, considering the costs and attorney's fees if a lawsuit were filed and the case went to trial, and decided to accept the offer.