Slip and Fall claims are filed in courts everyday and most are dismissed because the injured party could not prove anything. Important in a slip and fall case is “timeliness”: how soon after the incident a party filed a claim, got pictures of the accident area, hired an expert, etc. As you will see, the difference between a few days and a few weeks could make all the difference in a successful cause of action for a plaintiff. While accidents can occur almost anywhere, residents of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities know how difficult to navigate certain sidewalks and areas can be – to fail to file in time on a just claim would be a disaster if true harm has befallen a victim of such a fall.
In 1987, Mrs. Sellers was exiting a doctor’s office when she slipped and fell on a sidewalk. It had been raining that morning and the sidewalk, although covered, was clearly wet. Mrs. Sellers claimed to have slipped in a puddle of standing water outside the office entrance. She argued that the sidewalk, because of a defect, collected excess water that contributed to her fall. In an effort to recover damages from minor injuries sustained in the fall, Mrs. Sellers hired a professional photographer to take pictures of the sidewalk.
Under LSA-C.C. arts. 2317 and 2322, to prove liability for a defective thing, you must show that the defect in the thing poses an unreasonable risk of harm to others, and that the defect indeed caused the harm. The plaintiff, in this case Mrs. Sellers, has the burden of proving that (a) the defective sidewalk created an unreasonable risk of harm to patrons leaving the office, and (b) that the defective sidewalk in fact caused
the harm in question.
There was no conclusive evidence to support a defective sidewalk theory, however, because two weeks after the accident, the Parish Commission had begun to break up the concrete sidewalk to install a handicap-access ramp. Here’s where timeliness becomes a factor. Had Mrs. Sellers hired a photographer within a few days of her accident, the courts may have had some conclusive evidence to find that the sidewalk was indeed defective. In the photographs, the depressed area that allegedly collected excess rainwater looked like freshly chipped concrete surrounded by a pile of dust and debris. The pictures were useless because they failed to depict the sidewalk in the condition as it was the day of the accident.
The lesson learned from Mrs. Sellers’ unfortunate set of circumstances is that potential plantiffs must move forward on their case as quickly as possible because the conditions surrounding the incident may change. Mrs. Sellers’ case is an extreme example, but it illustrates the importance of moving on a claim before circumstances change. Had the pictures been taken a few days after the accident rather than a few weeks, Mrs. Sellers may have received compensation for the injuries sustained in the fall.