Lawsuits for Injuries from Defective or Broken Stairs

Slip and fall accidents can be caused by broken stairs and defective handrails. When someone is injured in a broken stairway accident, the property owner may be liable for the victim's damages. The victim can file a personal injury lawsuit to recover compensation for:

A homeowner's or renter's insurance policy may cover injuries that occur on the property. Commercial property insurance will generally cover stairway injuries on business properties. However, claims for coverage may involve issues of getting full compensation or insurance company bad faith.

Other stair accident claims for liability may be based on negligence or products liability for defective stairs. Defendants in a broken stairway lawsuit may include:

  • The stair manufacturing company,
  • Architects or designers,
  • Construction company,
  • Contractor or subcontractor,
  • Property or business owner, or
  • Insurance companies.

Below, our California personal injury attorneys discuss the following frequently asked questions about broken stair accidents and defective stair injury lawsuits:

If you have further questions about stair accidents after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

Broken stairs
When someone is injured in a broken stairway accident, the property owner may be liable for the victim’s damages.

1. Who is at fault for a stairway accident?

When stairway accidents occur on someone else's property, the occupier or property owner may be liable for any injuries based on premises liability laws. The owner's insurance policy generally provides coverage for injury accidents that injury visitors or customers on the property.

If a stair accident is caused by defective stairs, whoever constructed the stairs or sold the stairway parts could also be liable for damages. Stairway accident lawsuits are generally based on one of the following theories of liability:

  • Premises Liability,
  • Product Liability, or
  • Negligence.

1.1. Private Property Owner's Liability

Property owners have a duty of care to keep their property in a safe condition. When the property creates a safety hazard, the property owner or occupier is responsible for fixing the problem or warning visitor about the safety issue.

If a property owner fails to keep the property in a safe condition, and someone is injured as result, the property owner breathed their duty of care. The property owner may then be liable for damages.1

Safe property conditions include keeping stairways in proper repair and fixing any broken stairs. If someone falls because of broken stairs or dangerous conditions in the stairway, the property owner may be liable to the victim's damages.2

When a fall occurs on a residential property, the owner's or renter's property insurance will generally cover accidents, including stair injuries. However, when the insurance coverage is not enough to pay for the full amount of the damages, the property owner may be liable for damages.

1.2. Commercial Property Liability

Commercial property owners and occupiers also have a duty of care to visitors on the property. This includes grocery stores, office buildings, malls, and restaurants. For commercial properties, the areas that must be kept in safe condition generally include connecting areas of the property, including hallways, sidewalks, and parking lots. In some cases, a management company may be responsible for the upkeep of the property.

It is up to a jury to decide if the property owner was reasonable in inspecting the property, repairing dangerous conditions, and responding to hazards in a timely manner. Under California law, a jury may look at some of the following factors in deciding whether the property owner or management company was reasonable:

  • The likelihood of injury to a guest or visitor,
  • The seriousness of possible injuries,
  • The location of the property,
  • The burden on the property owner to repair or avoid the risk, and
  • The degree of control over the hazardous condition.3

Commercial properties often have higher coverage limits for personal injuries that occur on the business property. Commercial properties may also have multiple insurance policies and a claim may involve multiple defendant's insurance companies.

1.3. Defective Stairs

When an injury is caused by defective stairs, defective rails, or defective stair surface coverings, the injury victim may not be sure who was responsible for the product defect. However, under product liability laws, the manufacturer, seller, and distributor are strictly liable for defective products.

Stair and stair part defects can happen anywhere along the manufacturing or design process. Product liability lawsuits are generally based on the following types of defects:

Under product liability laws, anyone who designs, manufactures, or sells a defective product is strictly liable for damages caused by the product defect, even if no specific person was negligent. In a product liability claim, the plaintiff needs to show the following:

  1. The defendant designed, sold, distributed, or manufactured the defective product;
  2. The product was defective when it left the defendants' possession;
  3. The plaintiff used the product in a reasonably foreseeable way; and
  4. The plaintiff suffered damage as a result of the defective product.4
Example: Cut Rate Stairs produces a cheap stairway railing system that is advertised to fit in most homes. Sigmund buys a Cut Rate Stairs railing system from Last Chance Depot. Sigmund installs the railing system on the stairs in his home, according to the instructions provided.
When Sigmund holds the rail to walk down the stairs, the rail comes off and Sigmund falls to the bottom of the stairs, suffering a neck injury.
Sigmund contacts his attorney who has the railing system evaluated. The railing system may be faulty because the screws provided were not long enough to hold the rail securely. Sigmund files a product liability lawsuit against Cut Rate Stairs and Last Chance Depot.
Sigmund only has to show a jury that the product was defective at the time he bought it from Last Chance Depot. Cut Rate Stairs and Last Chance Depot may be strictly liable for putting out a defective product.

1.4. Negligent Construction

If stairs were constructed in a negligent way, the individual who constructed or inspected the stairs may be liable for the faulty stairs. In a negligence claim for broken stairs, the injury victim can show the following:

  1. The defendant owed the victim a duty of care;
  2. The defendant breached that duty of care;
  3. The breach caused the victim's injuries; and
  4. As a result of the breach, the victim suffered damages.5

If the stair construction problems were caused by a construction worker, the construction company may also be liable for the employee's negligence. An employer can be vicariously liable for the negligence of an employee. This is important for accident victims to recover damages because an employer may have deeper pockets than the individual employee.6

When filing a lawsuit against the employer for the wrongful actions of the employee, the plaintiff generally has to prove the following:

  1. The injury victim was harmed as a result of the employee's negligence, and
  2. The negligent employee was acting within the scope of employment at the time of the accident.7
Example: Zach is building stairs to access a new deck. Zach works for Savers Construction. Zach ran out of the brackets and screws he needed to finish the stairs but it was late in the day and he didn't want to go out and get more materials. Zach told the homeowner the stairs were finished and left.
The homeowner was trying out his new stairs when a step separated and the homeowner fell and hit his head on a rail. The homeowner required medical treatment and missed 3 days of work. The homeowner filed a lawsuit against Zach and Savers Construction.
Zach may be liable to the homeowner for his injuries based on negligence. However, Savers Construction may also be liable because Zach was operating within the scope of his employment when he negligently built the stairs.
In addition, if Savers never properly trained Zach, did not supervise him, or did not look into his qualifications, Savers might be directly liable for negligent hiring or negligent supervision.8

2. What damages are available after a stairway accident lawsuit?

In a personal injury lawsuit related to a stairway accident, the plaintiff makes a demand for money to compensate them for their injuries and losses. This compensation is known as “damages.” Compensatory damages are supposed to pay for the financial losses suffered by the plaintiff and provide money for non-economic damages.

The damages available after a stairway accident lawsuit include:

  • Medical bills,
  • Ambulance and ER costs,
  • Continuing medical treatment,
  • Loss of income,
  • Loss of earning potential,
  • Compensation for scars, disfigurement, or the loss of a limb,
  • Loss of consortium, and
  • Pain and suffering.

In a fatal stair accident, the surviving family members can file a lawsuit for damages because the victim is no longer alive to make a claim. A wrongful death lawsuit provides a way for certain family members to seek damages for their loss. A wrongful death claim can also be a way to punish the wrongdoer and help prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.9

Damages in a wrongful death lawsuit can include:

  • Funeral costs,
  • Burial expenses,
  • Loss of financial support, and
  • Loss of companionship.

3. Causes and Injuries from Broken or Defective Stairs

Falls and injuries involving broken stairs can be caused by stairs falling apart over time, poor construction, or the use of defective parts. Causes of stair injuries may include:

  • Rotten wooden supports,
  • Rickety stair rails,
  • Lack of stair rail required by building code,
  • Step heights and lengths that are not to code,
  • Torn carpet on stairs,
  • Slippery substance on steps,
  • Uneven stair surfaces, and
  • Blocked or cluttered stairways.

Many building codes have specific requirements for stairs, including height, depth, and required railing. When stairs are in violation of building codes and cause an injury accident, the property owner may be “negligent per se,” or presumed negligent because they are in violation of a statute, ordinance or regulation.

The injury victim can show the defendant is negligent per se because of stairway violations when:

  1. The defendant violated a state or local statute, ordinance, or regulation;
  2. The violation caused death or injury to the victim;
  3. The death or injury resulted from an act the statute, ordinance, or regulation was intended to prevent; and
  4. The victim was a member of a group the statute, ordinance, or regulation was intended to protect.10

Stairway injuries depend on a number of factors, including:

  • Age of the victim,
  • Height of the stairs,
  • Type of injury or fall, and
  • Stairway surface.

Even a minor slip can result in falling down multiple steps. A fall off the side of unprotected stairs can also result in an injury from falling from a significant height. Common stair accident injuries include:

  • Head injury,
  • Back injury,
  • Spine or neck injury,
  • Broken bones,
  • Concussions,
  • Scrapes and abrasions,
  • Lacerations, and
  • Facial trauma.

4. How should I deal with the insurance company after a stairway accident injury?

Even if the property owner has insurance to pay for the victim's damages, the process to recover damages is rarely simple. The insurance company may deny the victim's claim or try and delay the process as long as possible. The insurance company may also try and settle the claim for as little as possible.

Talk to an experienced personal injury lawyer before you talk to the homeowner's insurance company.

Before you talk to the property owner's insurance company, you should talk to an experienced personal injury attorney about your rights. Your lawyer will deal with the insurance company so they don't try and trick you into saying something they will later use against you to deny your claim.

Your attorney will also make sure that any settlement agreement will protect your interests and provide you with the best settlement possible to compensate you and your family for your losses. And if your case goes to a California jury trial, your personal injury lawyer will make sure the jury hears your side of the story before deciding how much to award you in compensation.

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Call us for help...

For questions about broken stair accidents or defective stairway claims or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our skilled personal injury attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

Legal References:

  1. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) (2017) 1000. Premises Liability. Essential Factual Elements.
  2. See e.g., California Civil Code section 1714(a) (“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person.”) See also Turner v. Mandalay Sports Entm't, LLC, 124 Nev. 213, 180 P.3d 1172 (2008); Perez v. Las Vegas Med. Ctr., 107 Nev. 1, 4, 805 P.2d 589 (1991).
  3. Sprecher v. Adamson Companies (1981) 30 Cal.3d 358
  4. Soule v. GM Corp. (1994) 8 Cal.4th 548, 560 (“A manufacturer, distributor, or retailer is liable in tort if a defect in the manufacture or design of its product causes injury while the product is being used in a reasonably foreseeable way.”)
  5. California Civil Jury Instructions ("CACI") 400.
  6. Perez v. Van Groningen & Sons, Inc. (1986) 41 Cal.3d 962, 967 (“Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer is vicariously liable for his employee's torts committed within the scope of the employment.”)
  7. See, e.g., California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3701 -- Tort Liability Asserted Against Principal--Essential Factual Elements. See also Lisa M. v. Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital (1995) 12 Cal.4th 291, 296–297 (“The rule of respondeat superior is familiar and simply stated: an employer is vicariously liable for the torts of its employees committed within the scope of the employment.“)
  8. California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 426 -- Negligent Hiring, Supervision, or Retention of Employee. See also Doe v. Capital Cities (1996) 50 Cal.App.4th 1038, 1054 (“California case law recognizes the theory that an employer can be liable to a third person for negligent hiring, supervising, or retaining an unfit employee.”)
  9. California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 (“A cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another may be asserted by any of the following persons or by the decedent's personal representative on their behalf: (a) The decedent's surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.”)
  10. California Evidence Code 669; California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 418(a); Spriesterbach v. Holland (2013) 215 Cal.App.4th 255.

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