By: Frank Lovece
February 9th, 2015
How significant are slip-and-fall cases in the world of co-ops and condos? A quick and unscientific review of the cases filed in the last year shows that more than half seemed to be slip-and-fall cases. A cross-section of insurance brokers, managing agents, and attorneys reported that these were the five most common slip-and-fall areas you should guard against: (exterior) uneven sidewalks and slipper snow and ice and (interior) wet floors, dangerous floor coverings, and slipper pool areas.
Exterior slip-and-falls are the most common, since many more people use the sidewalk around a building, residents included, than enter a building. That increases the chances of a sidewalk slip-and-fall. And even though your building doesn’t own the sidewalk, it bears responsibility if pedestrians fall on it.
That’s been the law since September 2003, thanks to three amendments to the city’s administrative code that do not apply to one-, two-, or three-family residences. Co-ops, condos, and rentals, however, must keep city sidewalks “in a reasonably safe condition” and must carry insurance for any injuries sustained on those sidewalks.
Managing agents and attorneys agree that one of the biggest causes of exterior slip-and-falls is tree roots. And since the city doesn’t let you deal unilaterally with sidewalk trees, and doesn’t rush to deal with them itself, boards can find themselves in a Catch-22 situation.
But generally you have three choices. The first is trimming the roots and replacing the cement flags (i.e., squares) of sidewalk. The second is leaving a soil “apron” around a tree (an imperfect solution, says Peter Lehr, director of property management at Kaled Management, since “you have this big open flag with a tree in it and a two-inch drop to the dirt. Fill it in a bit with bricks.”). And, third, you can have a sidewalk-grinding company grind down the uneven edges.
Whatever you do, cautions property manager Michael Wolfe, president of Midboro Management, “There are expansion joints [between the flags] that allow the concrete to expand and contract” because of weather conditions. Without expansion joints, the concrete would crack when it expands. Those joints need to be filled with caulking at a level even with the sidewalk. If that caulking is damaged or missing, a high-heeled shoe could get stuck in there, causing someone to trip.
Slippery Snow and Ice
A seasonal issue is snow and ice. Here, the city’s “Removal of Snow, Ice, and Dirt from Sidewalks” rule (the New York Administrative Code, Section 16-123) gives you the leeway of what’s colloquially called “the four-hour rule.” According to the code, a building is liable only if it created the condition or if it didn’t clear snow or ice “within four hours after the snow ceases to fall” (a building doesn’t have to clear snow or ice between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.). If the snow or ice is frozen so hard “it cannot be removed without injury to the pavement,” you have until “as soon thereafter as the weather shall permit.” One recommended practice is to keep logs of when workers shovel snow or remove ice.
You still need to stay on top of things, advises Adam Leitman Bailey, principal of his eponymous law firm, who notes that slipping on non-removed snow and ice is a significant problem for which boards should prepare. “You should have a policy that if there’s inclement weather, your staff is out there not just once but every hour or two cleaning the sidewalk and making sure ice doesn’t build up,” he says. “Another thing I like to see is that they put out signs: ‘Danger, Icy Conditions.’ Now you’ve warned the people walking by to be careful.”
That’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card, he notes. “The co-op or condo has to behave as a reasonable entity. But if you’re shoveling and putting up signs, you’re looking good in court,” he says.
Managing agents and attorneys agree that, inside your building, this hazard usually centers on worn or badly laid carpets and on the absence of rain mats and runners on inclement days.
“The super shouldn’t have to tell the porter to put the runners and the mats out,” says Kaled’s Lehr. “That should be standard practice.” Moreover, he notes, “if the mats are saturated and people are walking off leaving puddles of water, give the doorman a mop. If he doesn’t want to mop, then at least have him get on the radio and call the porter” about hazardous water on the floor. “If there’s no doorman, the porter should check on the lobby regularly during heavy rain.”
Dangerous Floor Coverings
“Make sure your [floor coverings] are feathered,” says Wolfe, using a term that means going from a higher surface to a lower surface gradually with a rubber border. “This way there’s nothing to trip over,” he says. To help prevent curling, tape the carpet, mat, or runner down with a specially designed carpet tape that goes underneath. “You don’t want regular double-stick tape, which leaves a sticky residue on the floor,” he says.
Slippery Pool Areas
Pools are a hot spot of potential trouble. “That’s the most dangerous place in a co-op or condo” for slip-and-falls, Bailey says. “We have [swimmers] sign a waiver. You want to require that parents be there with children under a certain age and that a lifeguard is on duty.”