Is a Senior Centre Liable for an Elderly Person’s Trip and Fall Accident?
Trip and fall accidents are often the result of a property owner’s negligence. Under B.C. law, an occupier is legally required to keep their premises in reasonably safe condition. What is “reasonable” varies depending on the particular facts and circumstances.
Although a property owner does not have to protect invited guests from every conceivable safety risk, he or she must take the same steps as any “ordinary, reasonable and prudent person in the same circumstances.”
There are two other legal principles to keep in mind when discussing trip and fall accidents. First, the mere fact that someone is injured does not by itself prove that the owner of the premises is liable. Second, even if the owner takes “remedial action” following an accident, that is not necessarily an admission that the premises were previously unsafe.
Sapia v. Invermere (District): 82-Year-Old Woman Files Lawsuit Following Trip and Fall Accident
Here is a practical application of these principles, taken from a recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling. This case involves a trip and fall accident that occurred 14 years ago at a senior citizens centre in eastern B.C. The plaintiff, who was 82 years old at the time, tripped and fell in a walkway connecting the centre to its parking lot. She subsequently sued the owner of the hall for damages.
This was a reasonably straightforward case tried before Justice S. Dev Dley of the Supreme Court without a jury. As Justice Dley explained in his judgment, issued on July 9 of this year, the evidence in this case was not “complex,” and there was no dispute as to the credibility of the witnesses involved.
The legal dispute here was purely a question of law–specifically, whether or not the defendant’s failure to place a “warning yellow line to demarcate the elevated portion of the walkway” caused the plaintiff’s fall and related injuries.
The Evidence at Trial
There was no dispute that the plaintiff had “decreased visual acuity” at the time of the accident. At that time, she was a frequent visitor to the senior centre, attending twice-weekly bridge games and other “special occasions.”
On the day in question, Justice Dley noted, the weather was clear and sunny and there was no rain that would have made the external walkway slippery. Furthermore, the plaintiff entered the centre without incident.
When she left later that afternoon, she “fell to the left.” There were no witnesses to the fall. The plaintiff was walking alone and not carrying anything at the time. While the plaintiff herself could not recall in court “how, where or why” the fall occurred, other witnesses testified that they saw her “sitting on the curb” shortly afterwards “in obvious distress.”
An expert witness retained by the plaintiff told the Court that the property owners should have painted a yellow line or posted a warning sign to inform visitors of the “visually imperceptible difference in elevation” between the walkway and the parking lot, which is the likely spot where the plaintiff fell.
The expert noted such warning signs were especially necessary in a building that catered to seniors who, like the plaintiff, suffered from “relatively poor” vision.
In fact, some time after the plaintiff’s accident, the defendant did paint the area where the walkway elevation changes in yellow paint.
Court: Property Owner Was “Reasonable,” Not “Perfect”
The question for Justice Dley, however, was whether or not the defendant’s prior failure to mark the walkway constituted a breach of care under B.C. law.
The judge was not especially impressed by the plaintiff’s expert. While he did not exclude the expert’s testimony from the evidence outright, he found the analysis was “not particularly helpful in the sense that [the expert] has opined in an area that does not require specialized skill or knowledge.” In other words, it was common sense that elderly individuals often have poor eyesight and may benefit from additional warning signage near potentially hazardous areas.
That said, Justice Dley agreed that a yellow line would have alerted the plaintiff to the sudden change in the walkway’s elevation.
But this was not the end of the inquiry: The Court went on to note that at the time of the accident, the “sidewalk and the parking lot were of markedly contrasting colours.” While not intended as such, this difference in coloration effectively functioned as a “cautionary alert” in lieu of the yellow line. Furthermore, the change in elevation itself was “obvious” and “apparent for all to see.”
Ultimately, the absence of the yellow line may have indicated a lack of “perfect” safety standards. But B.C. law does not require perfection when it comes to occupier’s liability. It only requires “reasonably safe” conditions. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the defendant failed to meet this standard.
Here, Justice Dley concluded the plaintiff did not meet her burden of proof. He was therefore compelled to dismiss her lawsuit.
What Should I do Following a Trip and Fall Accident?
As you can see, proving your claim after a trip and fall accident can be quite difficult in B.C. If you or a family member find yourself in a similar situation to the unsuccessful plaintiff in the case discussed above, there are a few steps you can take following an accident to bolster a potential case against the property owner.
- First, always report any accident, no matter how minor it may seem at the time, to the property’s owner or on-site manager. By letting them know an accident occurred, the premises owner is on notice that there may be a potential legal claim and they need to take appropriate steps to preserve any evidence.
- Second, if there are any witnesses to the fall, take down their names and contact information.
- Third, take pictures of the scene of the trip and fall. We all carry smartphones with high-resolution cameras these days. Put these devices to good use by getting multiple images of the site of the accident and the surrounding area.
Finally, contact a qualified Vancouver trip and fall lawyer who can advise you of your legal rights. Call the Preszler Injury Lawyers today to schedule a free consultation with a member of our legal team to discuss your accident and how we can best help you.