Stair Accidents: Proving Fault

If you've had an accident on stairs, here's how to determine if the property owner is at fault.

By , Attorney

Thousands of people trip, slip, or fall on stairs every year. Property owners are liable for stair accidents in the same way they are liable for slip and fall accidents in general. But stairs present a number of additional dangers -- some hidden and some obvious -- that merit special consideration. If you've had a stair accident, here's how to determine if the property owner is at fault.

Liability for Slip and Fall Accidents

To be legally responsible for the injuries you suffered from slipping or tripping and falling on someone else's property, one of the following must be true:

  • The owner of the premises or an employee caused the spill, worn or torn spot, or other slippery or dangerous surface or item, to be underfoot.
  • The owner of the premises or an employee knew of the dangerous surface but did nothing about it.
  • The owner of the premises or an employee should have known of the dangerous surface because a "reasonable" person taking care of the property would have discovered and removed or repaired it.

In addition, in almost every slip or trip and fall case, the insurance company or court will consider whether your carelessness contributed to the accident. The rules of "comparative negligence" help measure your own carelessness or reasonableness in going where you did, in the way you did, just before the accident happened.

In many stair accidents -- for example, when something has been spilled or dropped on the stairs -- the owner's liability will depend on the above inquiry. For a more detailed discussion of how this inquiry is conducted, read Nolo's article Slip and Fall Accidents: Proving Fault.

But in addition to the normal considerations of slip and fall cases, stair accidents are often more complicated. Stairs come with inherent dangers not usually present on level surfaces. And some defects in stairs may remain hidden even after an accident. You may have to make an effort to figure out what happened and how the stairs should have been constructed or maintained.

Here are some additional things to look for when you've had a stair accident.

Slippery Surfaces

A common hidden stair danger is worn-down carpet or wood that makes the "run" part of a stair -- the part your foot lands on -- dangerous. Often a slightly worn stair or carpet is more perilous than obviously worn stairs because people are not likely to notice the danger.

Some stairs are made of tile or highly polished wood that is more slippery than stone, carpet, or painted wood. If you fall on one of these stairs, the property owner might be liable for sacrificing safety for beauty.

Wet or Icy Outdoor Stairs

Rain, snow, or ice collecting on outdoor stairs increases the risk of accidents. Although people are required to use extra caution in these weather conditions, this duty does not end the question of the owner's negligence.

Outdoor stairs must be built and maintained to avoid excessive buildup of water or ice and must have surfaces that don't become extra-slippery when wet. If you slip on a stair with excessive buildup, the owner should be liable for your injuries. And if you fall on a stair without an anti-slip surface, the owner may likewise be liable for your injuries.

Building Code Violations

Every state and virtually every county has a building code that must be followed by builders and property owners. These codes include requirements for stairs. Here are some of the areas that building codes typically regulate when it comes to stairs:


Many building codes require handrails for certain types of stairs. If you fall on stairs that should have a handrail, but don't, and the lack of a handrail contributed to your fall, the owner is likely liable for your injuries. In addition, most building codes require that one or more stair handrails be of a certain width or height and that they be installed properly. Reaching for a handrail that is at the wrong height can cause you to fall even when nothing else is wrong with the stairs.

Improper Stair Height or Depth

The vertical and horizontal part of each step are called the "riser" and the "run," respectively. Building codes prescribe a maximum and minimum measurement for the riser height and run depth. Measure the stair's risers and runs and compare the numbers with the building code. If either the riser or run violates the code, the stairs are defective.

Once you have shown that the stair is defective, you must still show that the defect caused your fall. But unless the building owner's insurance company can show clearly that you fell because of your own carelessness, the building code violation will likely be enough to get a favorable settlement for you.

Uneven Stair Height or Depth

Building codes also prescribe the maximum variance from one step to another -- that is, the differences permitted in the height or depth of any one step from another.

The variance standard is important because when we go up or down stairs, our brains remember how far the last step was and automatically tell our legs to move the same distance the next time. If the leg moves the same distance but the step isn't in the same place -- even if the difference is only slight -- we may lose our balance and fall.

Researching the Building Code

To find your city or county building code, visit your local library, law library, or county building department. You can find your state building code within your state's laws.

Check the the building code's stair requirements to see if the stairs that caused your accident fail to meet any specifications. If your fall occurred on, or was made worse by, a stair or part of a stair that failed to meet the building code rules, you have a strong argument that the stairs were dangerous. This is true even if the violation is a matter of a quarter inch -- a very small differential can make a set of stairs dangerous.

For a detailed guide on how to handle your own personal injury claim, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo).

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