Algae Left on Stairs and Lack of Handrail Caused Fall

Synopsis

On January 1, 2010, plaintiff Isaac, 41, a houseman, was exiting his rental apartment in Larkspur. As he was descending the back stairway, Isaac slipped and fell approximately 12 steps to the ground floor. He claimed injuries to his lower back. Isaac sued the owner and landlord of the building, Thomas Fleming, individually and as Trustee of the Fleming Family Trust. He alleged that Fleming failed to maintain the safety of the back stairway and failed to install a building code required handrail, which would have prevented the accident and his injuries. Isaac claimed that Fleming failed to keep the stairway properly maintained and free from slippery algae, which caused him to slip. He also claimed that the lack of a handrail, as required by the building code, contributed to his fall.

Plaintiff Allegations

Plaintiffs' counsel contended that California laws require a landlord to maintain common areas, such as stairways, in a reasonably safe condition, as well as conduct safety inspections to identify hazards. Isaac alleged that he had used the stairs once per week prior to the accident, but maintained that he was not aware the algae could be dangerously slippery. The fall was witnessed by his wife and daughter.

Defendant Allegations

Defendants denied that a handrail was required for the back stairway. Defendant testified that he believed city and county agencies had implicitly approved the stairway without a handrail by never citing it, despite prior visits to the property. Defendant further suggested, by an absence of any documentation of bruising, that the fall never happened at all. The defense's accident reconstruction expert opined that if Isaac did fall, he simply overstepped the stair rather than slipped. The expert further testified that a 2-inch by 6-inch guardrail on the stair served the same essential function as a handrail.

Injuries/Damages

Isaac claimed lumbar disc bulges at L4-5 and L5-S1, which impacted the left, fifth nerve root. Isaac alleged that he experienced back pain in the days following the accident, but did not initially seek medical treatment before returning to work. However, 10 days after the accident, on January 11, 2010, Isaac went to his chiropractor, whom he had treated with for pre-existing muscle spasms, strains and stiffness in his back. On January 16, he went to the emergency room at Kaiser Permanente and was diagnosed with a lumbar strain.

Six weeks after the accident, Isaac underwent an MRI that revealed the disc bulges at L4-5 and L5-S1, which appeared to impact the left, fifth nerve root. He then treated conservatively over the next year and a half with two epidural injections, physical therapy, home exercise, chiropractic care and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. Isaac claimed that he tried to return to work as a houseman after the accident, but that he ultimately resigned after five months on his doctor's recommendation. He alleged that he then moved his family back to Mexico for financial reasons and that, while his back condition has improved, he is still looking for new work. Thus, plaintiffs' counsel asked the jury to award damages of $14,444 for Isaac's past medical costs, $106,357 for his past lost earnings, $850,000 for his future lost earnings, $100,000 for his past pain and suffering, and an unspecified amount for his future pain and suffering. Isaac's wife, Patricia, presented a derivative claim, seeking damages for loss of consortium.

The defense's medical experts opined that the disc bulges pre-existed the fall and that only degenerative processes were evident, with no confirmation of any abnormality caused by trauma. Defense counsel disputed the claim that Isaac's injuries caused him to leave his job as a houseman and argued that the plaintiff's wage losses would only be $200,000 to $600,000. Counsel also argued that there were inconsistencies in Isaac's deposition testimony, in which the plaintiff claimed that a prior 2006 back injury resulted in just one doctor's visit, noting that medical records showed that Isaac treated the prior injury for approximately nine months.

Result

The jury unanimously found defendant negligent. It also found that Isaac was negligent, but it determined that his negligence was not a substantial factor in causing his injuries. Thus, no comparative fault was assessed against the plaintiff and Isaac was awarded $1,070,801 in total damages.