A widower’s lawsuit filed in Payne County this month against Oklahoma State University alleging negligence in his wife’s slip-and-fall accident at Boone Pickens Stadium highlights the need for commercial enterprises to carefully assess stairway safety at public facilities.
According the plaintiff’s petition in CJ-2012-514 (Payne County) Charlotte Mayfield died as a result of injuries incurred when she fell backwards on stairs at the stadium while attending a high school football game on Dec. 9, 2011. Through his attorney, Ronald Mayfield alleges his late wife’s fatal fall resulted because of the graduated sizing of the stadium steps. A lack of handrails and “the fact that the steps were all painted the same color” also contributed to the fall, the lawsuit alleges.
The question of who was legally responsible for Mayfield’s death remains to be determined – by the trial court or potentially by agreement between parties in the lawsuit. Business owners will do well to take note, however, of the risks they face when the public is invited to use their facilities.
The first thing a business owner needs to understand about premise liability law is the difference between an invitee and a licensee. Property owners owe a greater duty to guests they invite onto their property. Customers at a store and spectators at organized sporting events are included in this group. When a business owner invites guests into a facility, the owner’s duty includes an obligation to inspect the premises for hazards, remove or repair dangerous conditions, to make the facility reasonably safe and to warn of any hidden dangers.
In Law for Recreation and Sport Managers (Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2010), authors Doyice Cotten and John T. Wolohan survey facilities managers’ duties to guests and patrons. While any premise liability matter must be understood in view of the unique facts along with the laws in effect at the time and place of an accident or injury, the authors provide a fair overview of liabilities sports-facilities managers may incur.
The difference between a licensee and an invitee, Cotten and Wolohan say, can be understood in light of a 1986 case in which a child was injured after she pulled a locker over on herself in a university locker room. The child and her mother were using the public facility free of charge. The court in Light v. Ohio University 28 Ohio St.3d 66, 68, 502 N.E.2d 611 (1984) concluded the mother and child were licensees, to whom facility managers owed a lesser duty only to refrain from willful and wantonly dangerous conduct.
Because Ohio mother and child were licensees, the university was not liable. Had the mother and child been ticket holders at an advertised sporting event, the court might have found the university liable for not exercising the “reasonable care” owed to invitees by securing the locker to a wall.
Bleachers at sports arenas are notoriously problematic for business owners who invite guests onto their facilities. While the facts in the OSU lawsuit remain to be determined, the authors cite a Louisiana case, Rispone v. Louisiana State University 637 So.2d 731 (1994) that resulted in an $80,000 award to a spectator who fell while using uneven stairs in bleachers during a college basketball game.
Beyond the particulars of premise liability law, property owners will do well to review building codes, which provide a baseline of features a guest might reasonably expect to find in a facility. For the most part, stairs built to current standards or in existing commercial facilities are to have no more than 3/8 of an inch difference between the width of all horizontal treads, and no more than 3/8 of an inch difference between the height of all vertical risers. Handrails are also usually required. Various paint or stripe schemes may or may not adequately warn guests of hazards associated with stairs.
If you’ve been injured as a result of a slip and fall at a business where you were invited as a customer or a spectator, you might be entitled to compensation. Before you conclude your accident resulted from chance or your own inattention, consult a qualified premise liability lawyer to find out if someone owed you a duty to mitigate – or at least warn you of – dangers associated with bleachers, irregular playing surfaces, playgrounds, parking lots, walkways, glass and other features.
For a free confidential consultation with a Bartlesville premise liability attorney, call attorney Peter Knowles today at (918) 213-0950.