It is often said that sports are won or lost by inches or seconds. Small deviations in time and space can make all the difference. The same can be said for proving negligence in personal injury cases. The length of time a dangerous condition exists is often a crucial part of a personal injury case.
Negligence and Reasonableness
Remember that just because someone is injured does not mean that there is a personal injury case. Someone must be injured by the negligence of another. Issues of timing come in when taking into account the concept of reasonableness. Generally, someone is negligent when they act or fail to act in a way that a reasonable person in the same situation would act.
Take, for example, a car on pedestrian auto accident. We generally think that anytime such an accident happens, it is usually the vehicle driver’s fault. But whether the driver acted reasonably often depends on timing.
A pedestrian who bolts out into the open road, giving a driver little time to react and avoid the accident, is negligent, and a driver may have acted reasonably because no reasonable person could have avoided such a pedestrian. On the other hand, the driver may be negligent if he hits a pedestrian walking slowly in the middle of the road, easily observable by the driver. If the pedestrian is in the road for a split second, a personal injury case is decided in favor of the driver; if he is there for 2, 3, or 4 seconds the case may be decided against the driver.
Timing in Premises Liability Cases
Nowhere is timing more important than in premises liability cases—often referred to as “slip and fall” cases. In many instances, businesses leave dangerous conditions in areas where customers walk, thus causing fall injuries.
Florida’s laws have made it much tougher in recent years to sue businesses for these kinds of injuries. The law only makes businesses liable for dangerous conditions that they actually knew, or should have known about.
It is often impossible to prove actual knowledge. Rarely will a business knowingly allow a dangerous condition to exist, and even if it did, getting anybody from the business to admit to that would be a difficult task. In fact, in deposition, most defendants’ first response will be “we did not know,” or that they didn’t see the dangerous condition or substance.
This means that most personal injury slip and fall cases are won on what is known as constructive knowledge. Given certain facts and circumstances, the law will “assume” that someone knew about a dangerous condition, even if they did not actually, literally, know.
This is actually quite in line with common sense. If you put an item in the freezer, after an hour, if you never look inside, you do not know for a fact that the item has frozen. But given what you know about how freezers operate and how items interact with low temperatures, you would have constructive knowledge that the item has frozen.
Constructive Knowledge Can Show Liability
Applying this constructive knowledge principle to premises liability, the law presumes that businesses that allow dangerous conditions to exist for an extended period of time, have constructive knowledge of the condition.
For example, if Wal-Mart allows liquid to remain in an aisle for an hour, they would have constructive knowledge of the condition. This is because any reasonable business would know to check and inspect isles more frequently than every hour.
How long a dangerous condition can exist before a store is negligent is a factual determination. A store may have an obligation to inspect an isle that stacks juices more often than it would an isle that stocks clothing.
In many cases, dangerous items or conditions exist too quickly for a business to be negligent. In a recent case, someone slipped on a substance that had spilled and remained on the ground for 13 seconds. The Court did not find the store negligent, finding that no reasonable business can be expected to clean or fix a condition that existed for such a short amount of time.
Often, we do not know exactly how long a substance or condition exists, but victims can get a good idea through the obtaining of evidence. Businesses may keep records of how often they inspect, monitor or clear its premises. A business that has a record of an employee inspecting an isle once every hour, may have constructive notice that the substance was on the floor—the victim need not prove exactly how long it was actually there. But if a business has records that they inspect every 5 minutes, then the longest the substance could have remained is 5 minutes. That may well be reasonable.
Often, employees or witnesses will testify as to seeing debris or substances on a floor. Unfortunately, the passage of time can often spoil accurate witness memories of time. A witness may not remember if she saw water on a floor for 10 seconds, 3 minutes, or 10 minutes. The difference between the three may be the difference between the business being negligent.
And ultimately, it may be up to a jury to determine how long is too long for a dangerous condition to remain on a floor. Expert testimony can assist a victim, but winning or losing a personal injury case involving a fall often ends up relying on the standards of what jurors consider to be reasonable.
When seconds count, you want attorneys who can get all the facts of your case. Recreating an accident scene and demonstrating reasonableness requires diligence in getting all the evidence possible. Call the injury attorneys of Brill & Rinaldi today for a free consultation to discuss your case.