A Back-to-Basics Primer

Guest Column: Slip-and-fall cases may be routine, but still are a risk

By Trey Henegar, JD
Claims Specialist
OHIC Insurance Co.
Columbus, OH

Slip-and-fall accidents can happen at any time of year and for a wide range of reasons. Bad weather, and the resulting wet, slippery floors, can greatly increase the likelihood of people slipping on your facility’s floors, but these accidents can happen when you least suspect them. Health care facilities can be particularly susceptible to slip-and-fall accidents because of frequent mopping and spills.

Managing a slip-and-fall hazard doesn’t rank among the more interesting risk-management activities, but it actually should be a major priority for risk managers. The potential payout for such a claim makes it worth your time. Hopefully, you have policies and procedures in place to make sure your facility is well maintained, and that any incidents are reported and properly documented. If not, this would be a good time to contact your insurer to discuss any concerns you may have.

The following review of a recent case shows how a risk manager, using good documentation, can assist in providing quality information for defending a lawsuit. It was mid-February, and a 25-year-old woman and her girlfriend came to the hospital to visit a friend who was recovering from surgery. She parked her vehicle in the parking lot and made her way toward the entrance. As she walked, she slipped and fell on the ground. The incident was reported and the risk manager took the visitor to the emergency room. An incident report was filled out that stated, "Visitor slipped and fell in our parking lot."

The risk manager had the patient examined and told her, "Don’t worry about it; we’ll take of everything." The patient’s initial assessment did not reveal any injury, but it was later discovered that she had suffered a fractured ankle. It required an open reduction and internal fixation. The hospital took care of the bills, and everything appeared fine until a couple of months later when the lawsuit arrived in the mail.

Room for improvement

In reviewing the actions taken in this instance, we can see some areas that need improvement and questions that we need to ask ourselves when slip-and-fall cases such as this occur in and around our facility. First, make sure the person who fell is evaluated and treated in your emergency room at no cost. While the initial assessment may be free of charge, instruct your staff not to promise payment for subsequent visits or treatment. Second, always have a camera loaded with film in your office. This will allow you to record an event on a moment’s notice and photograph the scene in its current state. Include the date and time on your developed photos. When taking pictures, always take a couple of photos showing the entire landscape (or overview) of the area in question. Also take photos of the specific area where the incident occurred. A good rule of thumb is to have the person who fell show you the exact spot. If someone refers to a crack or a dip in the pavement, have him or her show you where it is located. Take a picture of it and if possible; use a ruler in the photo to show its width or depth. In one case, a risk manager took a picture of a person’s shoes. In this instance, it was winter as well, and this photo helped to establish that the visitor was wearing shoes that were inappropriate for the conditions.

Gather information as soon as possible

Third, it is suggested that the person alleging to have fallen complete a detailed statement, and then sign and date it. While you will fill out your own incident report, this statement, along with any witness statements, can also be beneficial. Remember to include the names and addresses of your witnesses. If the injured person’s version is recorded immediately, it makes it difficult for him or her to change his or her story at a later date (after speaking with a local personal injury attorney).

Fourth, determine who is in charge of maintenance and what information is available concerning the area in question. Is your maintenance department responsible for the grounds, or do you subcontract with another company for certain services such as snow removal? This information also should be included in your report. (Snow can greatly escalate your risk for slip-and-fall accidents. It is a good idea to maintain a log of dates and times of snow removals.)

We were able to settle the above case before it went to trial. The area had been hit with quite a bit of snow and while the parking lot had been plowed, it was still covered with packed snow. Interestingly, a witness to the fall was related to a hospital employee and knew the visitor. She reported that the two women were horseplaying in the parking lot when one of them fell. This information helped bring the suit to a quick conclusion.

In retrospect, it would have helped end the case sooner if the risk manager had asked a few more questions and probably taken a few photos to better record what happened in that particular instance. Whether it is a case of professional or general liability, documentation always is the key. The sooner you can record the information from all known parties involved, the better chance you have of reducing your loss.