Stairways are one of the most dangerous features of any property. That’s why they must be constructed according to very specific industry standards, depending on the type of structure and their purpose.
Building codes dictate things like riser height, railing material, tread depth and head room. But of course, building codes can change over time, and certain stairways that aren’t necessarily safe could be grandfathered in. On top of that, many property owners fail to maintain stairways. Stairs that fall into disrepair can be very dangerous as well.
In the recent case of Estate of Smith v. Salvesen, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled against a widower whose wife died after apparently falling down a flight of stairs in a guest room where they were staying.
Although the husband established that the stairs had been defective, what he had failed to prove was causation. That is, he had not show that the defect in the stairs caused his wife’s fatal injuries.
According to court records, the couple were benefactors and trustees to a local college and were invited to a special dinner where they and others were being honored. They arranged to stay at a farmhouse that doubled as a bed-and-breakfast.
They were instructed on where to find the key when they arrived and told their suit was on the second floor. They did not realize that their room was actually a two-story suit, and that there was a set of stairs that led to a room in the lower level.
They arrived, put their things away, changed and headed out to dinner. They returned and went to sleep around 10 p.m. Sometime around 7 a.m., the husband awoke to a loud crashing noise and the sound of his wife’s scream. He didn’t see her and rushed out into the hallway. He didn’t see her there. He rushed back into the room and that’s when he noticed the stairway. He ran to peer over it and saw his wife, lying at the bottom of the stairs, suffering from a severe head injury. She was transported to a local hospital, where she later died.
Plaintiff, as representative of his wife’s estate, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the owner of the property. To support his claim that the property owner had been negligent, he had an expert witness conduct an inspection of the stairs. Two violations of local codes were discovered. First, when going down the stairs, the height of the first riser was half an inch less than the height of the next riser – an amount exceeding acceptable limits. Further, the staircase railing was below the minimum height requirements and was installed at an improper angle.
Defense countered that there was no proof this was what had caused the fall. Plaintiff had been sleeping and thus hadn’t seen his wife fall. Expert witness testimony did not determine how the fall occurred. Plaintiff argued that he’d heard the crash and the scream so he believed she fell from the top of the stairs.
Trial court entered summary judgment in favor of defendant, concluding plaintiff hadn’t made an adequate showing of causation.
Plaintiff appealed, but the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed. Although plaintiff had submitted an affidavit from his expert witness as to the issue of causation, he had not provided this information in his deposition, which conflicted with the statement in his affidavit.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Estate of Smith v. Salvesen, July 7, 2016, Maine Supreme Judicial Court
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Alcala v. Marriott Int’l, Inc. – $1.2M Slip-and-Fall Verdict Reversed, New Trial Ordered, July 9, 2016, Asheville Injury Lawyer Blog