Severe cuts and bruises, broken bones, fractured skulls, brain and other internal injuries, chronic pain and suffering, hospitalization and medical expenses, loss of work, even loss of life — these are just some of the serious consequences of slip, trip and fall accidents, a chronic and often trivialized problem that, according to recent reports, has cost the city of New York more than $321 million in payouts over the past five years, to compensate injured parties for losses suffered as a result of their accidents.
David Perecman, a New York personal injury lawyer whose law firm has represented many clients who have suffered serious injuries from slip, trip and falls, observed that broken, cracked and uneven sidewalks usually end up costing accident victims far more than the amount of money awarded to them by the courts.
“The most common forms of sidewalk accidents are nothing to treat lightly,” Perecman said. “The effects of a fall can be serious, even life threatening.” The most frequent accidents include broken wrists, often called Colles fractures, and foot and ankle injuries known as ‘Avulsion’ fractures, a medical term used to describe a debilitating injury where pieces of bone are ripped free by stronger ligaments that become stretched.
“The elderly are particularly vulnerable to hip fractures, and have a high incidence of fatality,” Perecman added. While the urge to right the wrong the moment the accident happens is understandable, Perecman strongly advises pedestrians involved in slip, trip and fall accidents to set their anger aside and seek medical attention first, never forego a physical examination and resist the impulse to underestimate the severity of the injury.
“No matter how upset you might become, never put your legal concerns ahead of your medical needs,” Perecman said. In the event of an accident, Perecman advises victims to take out their cell phones if they can and call 911 immediately.
Then, after taking care of their medical needs first, and if the phone is equipped with a built-in camera, he strongly advised victims to take pictures of the sidewalk defect paying particular attention to any debris and cracks, no matter how slight. The worst cracks are often found around trees and tree wells. “Accident victims,” he emphasized, “have the best chance of proving their case with pictures of the defects.
“If you can,” he said, “try and take good quality pictures, or have someone take them for you, before you leave the scene of the accident. Otherwise, go back, or have someone go back and get them for you as soon as possible. This is particularly true in hazardous transitory situations, like when the sidewalk is covered with ice and snow.”
Perecman also advises victims to make sure the police write up a report of the accident, and to find out how to obtain a copy of the report when it’s completed.
“If the accident takes place on private property,” he said, “ask management, or the owner of the property, to provide you with a copy of the report before you leave the scene.
If they refuse, demand one from them at their earliest convenience. And try and get names and phone numbers of as many witnesses as possible. “In these situations, speed matters,” he added. “You need proof before building owners and their insurance companies can come in and fix the defect that caused your fall.”
As an example, Perecman described a case his firm handled where a man fell in a hole on private property. His friend took photos while a contractor was actually trying to cover the hole with plywood.
“For this reason,” he said, “when we are retained in a slip, trip and fall case, we immediately send our own staff photographer out to the scene of the accident.
“By getting there ahead of anyone else,” he added, “we are able to take photos that clearly show the defect. I can’t tell you how often this type of evidence is just about all we need to prove a case. A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Perecman said that over time, laws in New York State have changed, sometimes to the detriment of city dwellers. He explained that nowadays, in order for an injured pedestrian to bring a law suit against the City of New York for a defect in the sidewalk or street, the New York City Department of Transportation must have written notice of the defect on file for a minimum of 15 days prior to the accident.
This regulation, enacted by the City of New York in 1979, was widely publicized and has come to be known, euphemistically, as The Pothole Law.
“Prior to the adoption of this law,” Perecman said, “all a victim’s lawyer had to do was find a witness to the existence of the defect, or an expert who could tell by looking at a photo how long the defect had been there and that it should have been fixed. The Pothole Law changed all of that for cases against New York City.
“The old law,” he added, “still applies to private property owners. In these instances prior written notice of the defect is not required.”
In response to what was deemed a direct attack on existing laws that had been designed to protect public safety, The New York State Trial Lawyers Association (NYSTLA) formed The Big Apple Protection Corporation in an effort to level the playing field for clients with serious slip, trip and fall injuries. By soliciting donations from its members — New York personal injury lawyers — the association hired a staff to canvass sidewalks and crosswalks all across the city and indicate on maps of those areas the defects that they found. The maps are now on file with The New York Department of Transportation.
“Thanks to NYSTLA’s efforts,” Perecman said, “injured pedestrians and their personal injury lawyers now have an invaluable keying system to use to prove these types of accident cases in court.”
In a recent audit done by the City Comptroller’s Office, The New York City Department of Transportation was found to have failed to inspect one out of every five complaints of sidewalk defects. Violations remained unfixed for an average of four years. Yet despite these grim statistics, slip, trip and fall lawsuits against the city have plummeted since 2003, when a law shifted the responsibility for faulty sidewalks to commercial property owners and owners of multiple unit dwellings — absolving the city of many claims.
“In many instances, the city has placed the onus of failure to maintain sidewalks on the property managers and landlords,” Perecman said.
Perecman explained that while there is no legal difference between a slip, or a trip and a fall, a victim of a slip or trip and fall accident has to be very careful what they say and how they describe the accident.
“We had a client once,” Perecman said, “who fell down the stairs of a building because the anti-slip matting on the staircase had worn away. She told the defendant’s lawyer during deposition that she ‘tripped’ and fell down the stairs of her building. Later on in court when questioned about the accident, she said she had slipped. All she knew was that she fell down the stairs, but she had used the term ‘trip’ earlier to describe the fall down the stairs. It was a simple mistake, slipped instead of tripped.
“Before she could be made to look like a liar,” Perecman said, “she explained that she had slipped causing her to trip or fall down the stairs. I explained my client’s mistake to the jury during summation. The jury retired to deliberate and 7 minutes later returned with a verdict against the landlord.
“A damages trial ensued,” Perecman continued, “and the jury awarded my client just shy of $1.7 million. The judge reduced the verdict because he said the trial was ‘unfair.”
“He said having me up against the landlord’s lawyer was like having The New York Yankees up against some farm team. The case was then settled for $650,000, far more than the $150,000 the landlord offered.”