Falling down a flight of stairs or even a few steps can cause serious injuries. Broken bones, head injury, and other trauma can result. In determining whether a stair injury case should result in a lawsuit, a number of factors need to be determined in addition to the severity of the injury. Stair injury cases are a form of premises liability litigation. Stair design is one factor to be analyzed. Knowledge of what makes stairs safe and unsafe has been circulated generally in the construction industry for many years. Age of the stairs is relevant. The owner of an older building with stairs narrower than would be designed today, for example, may not be liable for the excessively narrow stairs. There is no obligation known in the law to replace stairs, even if they would be considered unsafe if built today.
Other factors, though, are within the owner’s control even in older buildings. If wear has made the surface of steps slick, treads may be required. If there is an odd curve increasing the likelihood that a walker may step off the edge suddenly or have difficulty visualizing the next step, a warning sign or strip may be necessary. Railings can reduce the risk of injuries on stairs and their absence may be negligent in some cases. Poor lighting is a common cause of falls on staircases. Many a condominium association or apartment building owner has assumed that they were free from liability from staircase falls on their premises because their stairs complied with the building code.
Compliance with building codes is important but does not necessarily mean that a stairway is not negligently designed or maintained. Building codes are minimum standards. While failure to comply with the building code is evidence in Massachusetts, of negligence, compliance does not necessarily equal due care. Any case of a fall on stairs resulting in serious injury must be assessed individually to determine whether the stairs were safe for their reasonably intended use and at all times when their use was forseeable.