Whenever you've suffered an injury as a result of a slip and fall on someone else's property in Washington, D.C. (whether it's residential or commercial property), it usually makes sense to look into your options for getting compensation for your losses -- especially if you think the negligence of the property owner played a part in your accident.
Several D.C. laws will affect any lawsuit you decide to bring over your slip and fall, especially the statute of limitations deadline for starting a lawsuit in the district's court system, and D.C.'s plaintiff-unfriendly "contributory negligence" rule, which can take away your right to recover any compensation if you bear any amount of responsibility for the accident. Even if you're pretty sure your case will reach a personal injury settlement out of court, you still need to keep these laws in mind, so read on for the details.
By way of background, a statute of limitations is a law that sets a strict time limit on the right to have a lawsuit heard in civil court. Specific time limits vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and depending on the kind of case being filed.
In Washington, D.C., the statute of limitations that applies to a slip and fall case will be the same one that applies to most personal injury lawsuits. Specifically, D.C. Code section 12-301 requires that a lawsuit for personal injury or damage to property be filed within three years.
So, in the context of a slip and fall accident, if you think the owner of the private or commercial property where the accident occurred is responsible for your injuries, you must get any lawsuit filed against that person (or business) within three years. The same deadline applies whether you’re suing for injuries or for damage to your personal property -- maybe you broke an expensive watch when you fell, for example.
The three-year "clock" starts running on the date of the accident. In certain rare circumstances, the clock may pause or "toll," giving you even more leeway to get your case started. Talk to a personal injury attorney for the details on these exceptions in Washington, D.C.
The success or failure of any slip and fall case will most likely hinge on your ability to prove that the defendant failed to take reasonable steps to keep the property safe, and to prevent your accident.
The next logical question is, "What happens if I don’t get my lawsuit started before the three-year deadline passes?" In that situation, you can count on the defendant (the property owner) asking the court to dismiss the case, and the court is almost sure to grant the dismissal. That's why it's so crucial to understand the statute of limitations and abide by the time limit as it applies to your specific situation.
If you're thinking about making an injury claim after a slip and fall accident, get ready to hear the property owner argue that you bear some amount of blame for what happened. That’s true no matter where you live. But in Washington D.C., it's particularly critical that you (and your attorney) shoot down any such argument with strong evidence. That's because if your case goes to trial and the property owner is able to pin any amount of the legal blame for the slip and fall on you, you could end up without any compensation at all.
In situations where the person who is bringing a personal injury lawsuit (the plaintiff) also bears some amount of responsibility for causing the underlying accident, most states follow some variation of a rule known as "comparative negligence." Under this rule, any damages award the plaintiff receives will be reduced according to the percentage of their fault.
But Washington D.C. is one of a handful of jurisdictions that doesn't follow the "comparative negligence" rule. Instead, the much less plaintiff-friendly "contributory negligence" rule is still employed in D.C. personal injury cases. This rule says that if the plaintiff is found to bear any amount of fault for the underlying accident -- even one percent -- then the plaintiff can’t recover any compensation at all from any other at-fault party. Not surprisingly, that can lead to some pretty harsh results for personal injury plaintiffs in D.C.
In attempting to pin some amount of legal liability on you, the property owner (or whoever you’re trying to hold liable for your slip and fall) could claim that:
If your case doesn’t make it to trial -- even if a slip and fall lawsuit isn’t actually filed, for that matter -- Washington D.C.’s contributory negligence rule will still be a factor. During settlement negotiations, the property owner’s insurance company (and/or their attorney) knows that if your case winds up in court, you stand a significant chance of walking away with nothing if they can saddle you with even a little bit of blame. So it becomes that much more important to make a strong case showing that the property owner’s negligence was the sole cause of your slip and fall.