Stair Accidents: Proving Fault

If you've been injured in an accident on stairs, here's how to figure out if the property owner is at fault.

By , Attorney
Updated by David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

Thousands of people trip, slip, or fall on stairs every year. The National Floor Safety Institute counts stairs among the most dangerous products in homes, with accidents on stairs, landings, and ramps accounting for over seven million ER visits and over 36,000 deaths each year.

Property owners can be held liable for stairway accidents in the same way they can be on the legal hook 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 been injured in a stairway-related accident, here's what you need to know about the property owner's potential fault, and where to look to help prove your personal injury claim.

Liability for Stairway Slip and Fall Accidents

Under a legal theory known as "premises liability," in order to hold someone else legally responsible for injuries you suffered from slipping or tripping and falling on someone else's property (including on or around stairs), one of the following must be true:

  • the owner of the premises (or an employee) caused the spill, worn or torn spot, or other hazard to be underfoot
  • the owner of the premises (or an employee) knew of the dangerous condition but did nothing to fix it, or
  • 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.

Why would a property owner be liable for something an employee did or didn't do (in a store or other business, for example)? Learn more about employers' legal responsibility for employees' conduct.

What If the Injured Person Was Also At Fault for a Stairway Accident?

In almost every stairway slip and fall case, the insurance adjuster or court will consider whether the injured person's own carelessness contributed to the accident. The rules of "comparative negligence" help evaluate the reasonableness of your own conduct in the moments just before the injury happened.

Learn more about how to prove fault for a slip and fall accident.

What Kinds of Hazards Lead to Stairway Accidents?

Stair accident injury cases are often more complicated than run-of-the-mill slip and fall claims. 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—including how the stairs should have been constructed or maintained—in order to prove your case. Here are some 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 aren't likely to notice the danger.

Some stairs are made of tile or polished wood that can be more slippery than stone, carpet, or painted wood. If your accident involved stairs like these, the property owner's sacrificing safety for beauty might make your case easier to prove.

Wet or Icy Outdoor Stairs

Rain, snow, or ice collecting on outdoor stairs increases the risk of accidents. Although people are expected to use extra caution in bad weather conditions, this duty doesn't end the inquiry into the property owner's potential 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 of snow, ice, or water, the property owner could very well face liability for your injuries. And if you fall on a stair without adequate anti-slip surfacing, the owner may likewise be liable.

Inadequate Lighting on Stairs

Even when the stairway itself is properly configured and free of obvious or hidden dangers, if the area is poorly lit—or if the lighting isn't working properly—that can lead to a valid finding of fault on the part of a property owner. Of course, if some existing stairway defect was made more dangerous by inadequate lighting, that will only serve to boost the injured person's claim against the property owner.

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. Let's look at some of the areas that building codes typically regulate when it comes to stairs, and which might play a part in a stairway injury claim.

Handrails

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've 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, do an online search, or visit your local library or county building department.

Check the building code's stair requirements to see if the stairs that caused your accident didn't meet 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 unreasonably 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.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Stairway Slip and Fall Case?

If your injuries were fairly minor, and the property owner's insurance company isn't pushing back on key issues—like fault for the accident and the legitimacy of your injury-related losses—it might make sense to see if you can get a fair settlement on your own. Learn more about when it might make sense to handle your own injury claim. And for a detailed guide to the process, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo).

But if your injuries and related losses ("damages") are significant, it probably makes sense to discuss your situation with a legal professional. That's especially true if the early going indicates that the property owner (or their insurer or their attorney) is digging in for a fight. Having an experienced lawyer on your side can make all the difference when it comes to getting a fair result for your stair accident injury claim. Learn more about finding the right personal injury lawyer for you and your claim.

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