Unsafe Stairs Can Lead to Slip and Fall Lawsuits

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Stairs, ramps, and landings are often the most dangerous architectural feature of any building.  Falls and trips on staircases cause hundreds of thousands of serious personal injuries each year.  When it comes to stairs and stairways, there are important differences in design and maintenance that can make certain stairways unsafe.  If someone using those stairs falls and injures themselves, the injured person could have a personal injury claim against the building’s owner. Our lawyers have identified at least seven different safety features and design characteristics that may determine whether the injured person’s lawsuit will be successful. 1. Are the stairs coming apart?  An amazing number of staircases are in a sad state of decay.  Loose edges and broken materials make the stairs unsafe. If stairs are carpeted, the carpet must be securely secured to the stair structure across the entire tread; otherwise, even a small slippage of the carpet can cause a fall.  If the “Nosing” covering the edge of each tread is loose or raised above the surface, it can create a tripping hazard.  If the structure itself is unstable, small movements under the weight of a person using the stairs can cause a loss of balance or cause enough of a misstep to create a fall or a severe personal injury. 2. Were the stairs designed correctly?  The height, length, and surface of each step must be designed correctly to prevent falls.  Stair surfaces need to provide sufficient traction to prevent slipping.  The surface also needs to provide some means to dissipate surface moisture and to prevent the accumulation of ice and snow.  The “Rise” between individual steps must be within normal limits of 4 to 7 inches (with 5 to 7 inches being optimal), and the “Run” (or length of the step) must be within the normal limits of 11 to 14 inches.  Any variations of the Rise or Run within a single flight of stairs can present an injury hazard even when the steps are within normal limits, because the users mind subconsciously adjusts to the rise and run within the first step or two.  If that changes on step three or four, it can take the user by surprise. 3.  Can you see the beginning and end of each step?  While decorators may favor patterns and colors that are pleasing from a distance, people using the stairways must be able to see when the steps start and end.  Stairways need sufficient contrast or markings for those using the stairs to pick up subconscious or instinctual cues as to the mechanical movements necessary to safely negotiate the stairway.  It is critical that these visual cues be complete and consistent, with colors, alignments, and patterns that present a true representation of the stair surface conditions.  Patterned carpeting that obscures the edges of the steps is unsafe because it can lead to falls and personal injuries. 4. Is the handrail sufficient to provide a “back up” if a misstep occurs?  Handrails on stairways serve several functions.  First, they assist the users in maintaining their balance and stability during the ascent or descent.  Second, the handrails provide a pivot point for the user when negotiating a turn in the stairway.  Finally, the handrail serves as a grab bar to avoid or minimize the injury that can occur if the user loses balance.  To be safe, handrails must be continuous and smooth, and firmly secured to the wall.  An effective handrail must be easy to grasp (1.75 to 2.0 inch diameter, without obstructions), must be a sufficient distance from any adjacent wall (2.5 inches), and must be at the appropriate height (approximately 42 inches above the walking surface).  On wider flights of stairs, a handrail should be available on both sides, and in extreme cases a third handrail should be installed in the center of the stairway. 5. Are there hazards or obstacles near the stairway?  If the area around the stairway is not clear, a simple trip-and-fall can become much more serious if the person falls down an entire flight of stairs.  Guardrails around the stairway must be sufficient to prevent someone from falling into the stairwell.  And most importantly, the stairs cannot be allowed to serve as a storage area.  Stair risers should not be as extra shelving. 6.  Are there distractions or lighting problems around the stairway?  While the grand stairway on the Titanic was effective for making dramatic entrances into the dining room, it was not designed for maximum safety.  Anything that causes a person descending the stairway to look beyond the flight of stairs will tend to increase the number of falls and personal injuries, because users need to watch their steps.  The lack of adequate lighting has the same effect, essentially blindfolding the people who are ascending or descending the stairway. 7. Would signs or safety signals have prevented the injury?  When there are unsafe elements to a particular stairway, the hazard is lessened when signs alert users to the specific danger.  While this is no substitute for repairs, safety signs can help with temporary problems.  Other safety signals can include bright markings on the nosing of each step. If you have suffered a personal injury as the result of an unsafe stairway, contact the personal injury lawyers at Powers Taylor LLP for a free case evaluation of your potential lawsuit.