Friday, May 20, 2011

An Interesting Slip and Fall Case

I have a slip and fall trial coming up soon. It is unfortunate that the term “slip and fall” has come to carry the connotation of frivolous lawsuit. I am sure there have been a lot of bogus lawsuits filed that could be characterized as slip and falls. But on the flip side there are a lot of slip and falls where people are seriously hurt because of the carelessness of someone else. Again, that is, in part, why we have a civil legal system in place, to determine which cases have merit and which do not. That all of these cases now carry the stigma of frivolous is truly unfortunate for the people legitimately hurt by other people’s lack of care. Our law says that people hurt by the negligence of other have a valid claim that is to be fairly compensated.  But before the case is even filed victims of legitimate slip and falls have a steep obstacle to overcome i.e. the presumption/label that they are fakers, are exaggerating or just plain out for the money. Meanwhile the injuries from these incidents can literally change people’s lives for the worse.

Countless slip and fall lawsuits have been filed, litigated and tried over the years. So there is a wealth of information regarding the outcomes of these cases with all sorts of different fact patterns. I just came across the case of Powell v. Northeast Hospital which, for a slip and fall, had a pretty provocative story.

Powell, the plaintiff, claimed that the defendant hospital was negligent in allowing mop water to puddle in front of an elevator. Powell claimed that she stepped in the water and it caused her to slip and fall. The defendant contended that the floor was dry at the time of the plaintiff's fall. This was a he said/she said case as the Plaintiff really didn’t have any witnesses to corroborate what happened. Credibility of the plaintiff is key in these case.

Powell, 56, was visiting her mother in the defendant's hospital following her mom’s hip replacement surgery. Powell testified she was walking to the elevator when she slipped and fell in a puddle of water in front of the elevator. She claimed that she observed a leaking bucket in a corner opposite the elevator and that the defendant's employee had just mopped the floors. I can only guess that she observed this after her fall. If she noticed all this before the fall then the defendants would have had a strong argument for comparative negligence. Ironically, Powell sustained a hip fracture of her own in the fall, necessitating hip replacement surgery- the exact injury her mom had suffered whom she was in the hospital to visit.

The hospital argued that if the bucket had been leaking as Powell said, the entire lobby would have been awash in water. In true CSI fashion, the hospital introduced a time-lapsed video film depicting where the water would run had it leaked from a bucket in the location designated by the plaintiff. They argued that the liquid on the floor came from a beverage bottle which the plaintiff was holding and which fell and broke upon her fall. I can only guess from this that the hospital was arguing that the floor was dry at the time of the fall an only became wet when the water bottle broke, after the fall.

The defendant stressed that the plaintiff had sustained a left knee injury in a motor vehicle accident prior to the fall and had received knee treatment the morning of the fall.
Two hospital employees testified that they observed the plaintiff running for the elevator and when she attempted to pivot and enter the elevator, she slipped and fell. The defense contended that the plaintiff's knee gave out, causing the fall.

The defendant's employees also testified that they did not see any moisture on the floor before the plaintiff's fall. Wow, it sure looks like the odds were stacked against Powell in this case. Despite this, the jury found the defendant 51% negligent and the plaintiff 49% comparatively negligent. The plaintiff was awarded $ 250,000 in damages, reduced to a net award of $ 75,000. That is a pretty amazing outcome for Ms. Powell that I believe is attributable to two factors: 1. Venue 2. Credibility of Powell.

Philadelphia where this case was tried is know for plaintiff-friendly juries so this was an ideal locale for this trial to take place for Ms. Powell. But not matter how plaintiff-friendly a jury may be if the plaintiff if not believable and likeable they have little chance of winning this case. Powell clearly won over the jury (she probably also had a darn good attorney) for them to find the way they did. I think the 51% negligence finding was the jury’s way of saying “we feel bad about what happened and we like you so you are deserving of some money.” Share this post :
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