Plaintiffs Not Barred from Proving Causation in Slip and Fall Case, Even With No Witnesses and No Memory of Fall Itself

On January 19, 2022, the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District (Los Angeles), held that a plaintiff is not barred as a matter of law from proving causation in a slip and fall case if there were no witnesses to the fall, and the plaintiff does not remember the fall itself. The Court of Appeal stated specifically that circumstantial evidence would permit a jury to make a “reasonable and probable inference” regarding contributing factors to a fall, even with no eye-witness evidence.

In Kaney v. Mazza (BC619247, Jan. 19, 2022), plaintiff and appellant Lydia Kaney (Kaney), was visiting her sister in her rented home in September of 2014. At some point during the visit, the light in the bathroom at the top of the stairs stopped working—Kaney used the stairs, and fell. Kaney filed suit against her sister and the owner of the home alleging premises liability, negligence, and violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In her deposition, Kaney testified that she remembered going up to the bathroom, and then waking up on the floor in pain. She could not remember how she fell; she did not know if she had missed a step, or if she had slipped and fallen backwards. She speculated that a worn-out bath mat may have been the cause of the slip and fall because the rubber traction on the bath mat was worn away.

The homeowner filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that there is no triable issue as Kaney did not remember how she fell. The owner also argued against the ADA violations and provided expert testimony that the house itself was “grandfathered in” under previous building codes due to its age. In opposition, Kaney submitted a declaration by safety and engineering expert Brad Avrit. He opined that the stairwell itself was unsafe, as there was no handrail present, there was significant differentiation between the risers and treads, and the stairway itself was not 30 inches in width. The trial court granted summary judgment stating that “when opposition to summary judgment is based entirely on inferences, such inferences must be ‘reasonably deducible from the evidence and not such as are derived from speculation, conjecture, or guesswork.’” Because Kaney could not state how she fell, there was no evidence that the stairs caused the fall in any way.

On appeal, the court discussed the type of evidence required to prove causation in a slip-and-fall case. The appellate court stated that expert opinion is only necessary in cases of particular complexity; in this case, the absence of a handrail or the size of the risers and how they may have contributed to a plaintiff’s fall was within common knowledge, and expert testimony was not necessary to establish causation. The court cited several cases in which a combination of circumstantial evidence led to “reasonable and probable inferences” in which the absence of a barrier was a substantial factor in the plaintiffs’ falls. (See Burdette v. Rollefson Construction Co. (1959) 52 Cal.2d 720; Schumann v. C. R. Reichel Engineering Co. (1960) 187 Cal.App.2d 309.) The difference in this case is that there is no safety rail or other barrier that would have immediately prevented Kaney’s injury; the Court of Appeal, however, did not find this to be a significant distinction.

The consequences of this ruling are significant for defendants in a variety of different types of cases. If there are enough reasonable or persuasive factors that would lead a layperson to believe they could have contributed to an injury, then the plaintiff does not need to provide specific testimony on how an injury occurred. This could lower the bar for a potential plaintiff to bring a lawsuit, and changes the calculations on how to defend such complaints.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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