What should you do when you trip and fall and get injuries? Call an attorney, of course. The Florida court case “Lee County Department of Transportation vs. the Island Water Association” from April 2017 is a perfect example of all the complexities of the law.
Someone without a law background would think that seeking damages for a slip and fall would be easy. Just settle with the property owner where you were hurt, right? Not so fast. This is a complex trip and fall case with many details that make it difficult to determine who is responsible. If you think that you have been injured in a situation where blame is unclear, contact SteinLaw.
In Lee County, Annette Cantalupo was walking along a county road when she tripped and fell on an exposed water valve that was sticking out of the asphalt. As a result, she sued Lee County Department of Transportation as well as the Island Water Association. She sued Lee County DOT because they own the road, and the Island Water Association because they own the valve (see how this starts to become a complex trip and fall case?).
At the time of Ms. Cantalupo’s accident, the asphalt around the water valve had begun to separate from the valve itself. It had sunk down so the valve was now sticking out from the road. Three months after Ms. Cantalupo fell, Island Water repaired the asphalt so the valve was no longer protruding.
During the trial, the Island Water Association wanted to exclude evidence that they had a legal duty to maintain the asphalt around the valve. The court agreed that, based on the repair described above, they did not have a legal duty to repair the asphalt after the accident nor were they obligated to do so.
After several more court dates and going back and forth on the issue of whether or not the Island Water Association was responsible for repairing the valve, the court finally decided two things: 1. the Island Water Association’s only duty to the public was as to its equipment (not repairs surrounding equipment), and 2. the Island Water Association had no duty in a circumstance where there was a depression in the asphalt around the valve if Island Water did not install the asphalt or damage it.
However, Lee County continued to argue since they did not want to take responsibility for the accident either. They asserted the point that the Island Water Association should be responsible, citing many other cases as precedent. This is where it continues to become a more complex trip and fall case. Some arguments for the Island water Association being negligent included the following:
- A party who has control over premises has a duty of care to keep the premises in repair.
- When the Island Water Association decided to operate utilities in a public roadway, they assumed a common law duty to maintain the valves to allow the public to safely navigate them.
- Even if the valve protruded due to the erosion of the asphalt, the Island Water Association is not absolved of responsibility to keep the public safe from the tripping hazard.
After Lee County presented the arguments described above, the trial court found that the Island Water Association had no duty regarding the asphalt around the valve because they had not installed the asphalt and had not damaged the asphalt during maintenance checks.
However, despite a contract, a party who exercises control over property may have a duty to maintain a premises in a reasonably safe condition. Consequently, the trial court erred in determining previously that the Island Water Association had no legal duty to correct or warn of a protruding water valve that was a tripping hazard. Therefore, the court reversed the final summary judgment. Further proceedings will take place to determine who is at fault.