Washington Tenant Found Not Liable for Fall on Stairs in the Common Area

When a person slips and falls in an office building, it is important to ascertain who may be liable.  Multiple tenants, a property management company, building owners, and even some vendors contracted to do certain work may have some responsibility.  Liability may depend in part on the leases, contracts, and business arrangements among the potential defendants.  In a recent case, a plaintiff challenged summary judgment in favor of two defendants.

The plaintiff slipped and fell down some stairs outside her acupuncturist’s office.  The acupuncturist’s office was in a rented room on the second floor of a house with multiple tenants.  The written lease was expired, and named just one tenant. The named tenant had moved out, and one of the other tenants collected rent from the others.

The patient sued the acupuncturist, the named tenant, the building’s owners, and other defendants for damages related to her injuries from the fall.  The trial court found the acupuncturist and the named tenant did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care with respect to the stairs in the common area.  The court granted summary judgment in favor of those defendants.  The plaintiff appealed.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the plaintiff had been seeing the acupuncturist for several years before he moved into the current location.  She has multiple sclerosis, with symptoms of numbness and loss of circulation in her feet.  The acupuncturist was aware of her condition and symptoms.

The plaintiff’s sister told the plaintiff the tenants and their clients generally removed their shoes and  left them by a bench at the bottom of the stairs at this building.  She also said the acupuncturist met his patients downstairs and walked them up to the office.

When the plaintiff arrived for her first visit at this office, she saw the acupuncturist and a patient come downstairs in their socks.  She took off her own shoes and went upstairs with the acupuncturist.  After the appointment, she walked down alone and fell.

After the plaintiff’s fall, the tenants placed signs at the top of the stairs advising they were narrow and asking people to keep their shoes on.  They also installed slip-resistant treads.

The acupuncturist stated in his declaration that he only rented his office and was not responsible for any other part of the house.  He said the shoe rack downstairs was for the downstairs offices.  He had set up an area upstairs for his clients to remove their shoes.  He had not asked the plaintiff to remove her shoes and had not stopped her from removing them downstairs.

A key issue in a premises liability case is whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care.  Generally, a person who possesses the property has a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect invitees from conditions that create an unreasonable risk of harm.  The possessor is not liable if the condition is known or obvious, unless he or she should anticipate the harm.

Generally, a landlord has the duty of reasonable care to maintain common areas in a safe condition.  However, the parties can contract for the tenant to have that responsibility, so the court must review the lease to determine which party is responsible.  In this case, the acupuncturist did not have a written lease.

The appeals court found the acupuncturist was not a possessor of the stairs.  He would only be a possessor of a common area if he “maintained, operated, or otherwise exerted control over the stairway.” The plaintiff alleged he had “managerial decision-making power” because the tenants had hired a cleaning person who cleaned the common areas.  She also alleged that he met with the other tenants to put warning signs at the top of the stairs and to add slip-resistant treads after she fell.

The tenant who collected the rent hired the cleaning person, and the others just paid extra rent to cover the cost.  Additionally, Washington courts have held that “minimal, neighborly maintenance” does not constitute control over the area, even if performed regularly.

The plaintiff also argued the acupuncturist had assumed a duty of care because he had encouraged her to go up the stairs in socks despite being aware of her medical issues.  The appeals court found no evidence he affirmatively assured her it was safe to go up the stairs in just socks.  He did not tell her to remove her shoes downstairs, and had in fact stated he only required patients to remove their shoes before coming in to his office.

The plaintiff argued the named tenant was liable because she had a duty as the sublessor to ensure the safety of the common areas.  The written lease had expired and been converted to a month-to-month tenancy.  The named tenant had assigned all her rights and responsibilities to the tenant who collected the rent.  The appeals court found she did not occupy the premises and there was no evidence she intended to control the premises after she left.  The appeals court found the named tenant had no duty to the plaintiff because she was not a possessor of the stairs when the plaintiff fell.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment.

Although the plaintiff in this case was not successful in her claims against these defendants, personal injury cases are very fact-dependent.  Slightly different facts could lead to a different result.  If you have been injured on someone else’s property, an experienced Washington personal injury attorney will help you identify and evaluate all potential sources of recovery.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562.