Last Updated on May 2, 2023 by Dan Cronk
Imagine this: a tenant is walking down the stairs outside your building when they trip and fall. The tenant breaks their arm, and now they’re filing a premises liability claim against you.
This is every landlord’s worst nightmare.
Fortunately, it’s also a preventable situation.
While there’s no way to avoid all slip and fall accidents, you can take proactive steps to make your stairs as safe as possible and decrease your liability.
Here at Deck and Balcony Inspections, Inc., we specialize in providing elevated exterior element (EEE) inspections for California apartment buildings, condos, and more, so we know what it takes to keep interior and exterior stairways safe.
In this blog, we’ll share some of our top tips to make your stairs safer and prevent slip and fall accidents on your property.
Let’s dive in.
How Common are Slip & Fall Accidents in Apartment Complexes?
Falls are among the most common causes of injury in the US. Notably, they’re also the single most common cause of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
According to one 2017 study, about 1 million people were treated each year in emergency departments for falls on stairs – between 1990-2012.
While most stair falls occur in people between 11-62 years of age, the most severe injuries occur in young kids and older adults.
In fact, 67% of all fall fatalities occur in people ages 75 and older.
Interestingly, an estimated 7-36% of falls occur on stairs.
This is big news for apartment building managers and owners, and it represents a significant opportunity to make your property safer and decrease slip, trip, and fall rates.
5 Causes for Slip & Fall Injuries in Apartment Stairways
Wondering what causes slip and fall injuries in the stairways of apartment buildings?
Here are a few of the most common culprits:
1. Poor lighting
Poor lighting reduces visibility, making it tough for tenants to see the stairs – especially in outdoor settings. As a result, poor lighting is one of the most common reasons for slip and fall accidents.
Fortunately, this is an easy problem to fix from a property management perspective.
Adding ample, bright lighting to the stairways in and around your apartment building can prevent slip and fall injuries on your property.
2. Debris or clutter on the stairs
Debris, clutter, and other objects on the stairs can cause slip and fall accidents.
Whether the clutter is a repairperson’s tools, wires and cables across the stairs or walkway, or debris created by stairs in a state of disrepair, removing these items immediately is essential.
If a tenant or visitor slips and falls over stairway debris and gets injured, the landlord may be liable based on negligence.
3. Missing handrails
Handrails serve an essential purpose: they provide stability for stairways and help people catch their balance if they slip while going up or down the stairs.
As such, they’re required by California building codes.
If handrails are missing, patchy, or broken, they can cause slip and fall accidents.
4. Broken steps or uneven flooring
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), floors and flooring materials contribute directly to nearly 2 million fall injuries annually.
Keep an eye on your steps and the flooring leading to them.
Broken, uneven, or warped flooring and stairs must be fixed immediately to prevent future falls.
If you have loose carpeting on the stairs, it must be removed or repaired to prevent tripping.
5. Puddles and condensation
Water on stairs is a significant slip and fall hazard.
When water builds up on or near stairs, it creates a slippery patch of flooring that can be difficult to see.
To prevent water buildup on indoor and outdoor stairs, it’s essential to keep gutters and plumbing in good repair and clean up any spills promptly.
Can a Tenant Sue a Landlord for Falling Down the Stairs?
The answer to this question is possibly. It depends on your state’s specific laws.
For California, in particular, according to CA Civ Code § 1941.1, apartment complex managers, landlords, and property owners are under a legal obligation to make sure all rental units in the apartment building are “tenable.”
This means that each unit includes properly maintained flooring, railing, and stairways, as well as safe, adequate lighting. Failure to fulfill these obligations may constitute negligence.
Suppose a tenant or visitor slips and falls because an apartment manager was negligent and did not uphold their legal obligations. In that case, the tenant may have the grounds to file a premises liability claim.
As a rule, tenants will have to prove the following to ensure a successful claim:
- That a dangerous condition was present.
- The landlord, property manager, or property owner knew about the dangerous condition or should have known about it through the “exercise of reasonable diligence.”
- The landlord or property owner could have repaired or fixed the dangerous condition.
- That the dangerous condition was highly likely to cause injury if left unaddressed.
- That the tenant sustained an injury because the dangerous condition was not repaired.
Even if a tenant can prove the above criteria, landlords may be able to make a case arguing that the tenant’s negligence contributed to the fall.
Such legal battles tend to be lengthy and costly, so it’s wise to avoid slip, trip, and fall hazards before they cause an injury.
More on that in the next section.
5 Important Tips to Make Your Stairways Safer
As a landlord, ensuring the safety of your tenants is your top priority.
With that in mind, follow these four steps to prevent slip and fall accidents on your building’s stairways:
1. Get a comprehensive inspection by a professional
The best way to keep your stairways safe is to get a comprehensive inspection by a certified building inspector like Deck & Balcony Inspections.
When someone slips or falls, the plaintiff’s attorney usually hires an industry expert to perform forensics on the stairs.
If that forensic investigation reveals the building’s handrails are off by even 3/8th of an inch, that’s enough for the courts to deem a landlord legally at fault for the accident.
Finally, building codes are complex, and tenants are becoming aware that they can initiate personal injury claims against their landlords.
When you invest in routine stairway inspections by a professional team, you tip the scales in your favor on all counts.
Not only do you have a paper trail proving your adherence to local laws and concern for tenant safety, but you’ll know about any stairway defects or safety issues before they cause an injury.
This allows you to fix the stairway before someone gets hurt and sues you.
You’ll also be in compliance with all applicable California deck and balcony inspection laws.
The bottom line is this:
If you want your stairs to be as safe as possible, have them inspected by a professional at least once a year.
2. Keep stairways and the paths leading to them clear of all debris
Keeping stairways clear of all debris is one of the best ways to make your stairs safer and prevent slip and fall accidents.
If construction occurs in your apartment building, ensure the stairways remain free of tools, wires, cables, or other materials that could present a tripping hazard.
It’s also essential to make sure stairs stay ice- and snow-free during the coldest months of the year and to remove storm-caused debris (like leaves or downed tree branches) as quickly as possible.
3. Install and maintain handrails in stairways
Handrails are a critical safety structure that must be present and in good repair in your stairways.
Make sure all handrails are strong, made from sturdy, safe material, and that they receive maintenance and repairs in a timely fashion.
Handrails should be installed in indoor and outdoor stairways and meet all applicable building code requirements.
4. Repair broken steps and uneven surfaces
Broken steps, loose carpeting or flooring material, and uneven floorboards should all be repaired as quickly as possible.
These are some of the most common slip and fall hazards, so repairing them can make your stairways safer.
5. Make sure stairways aren’t too steep
Stairways that are too steep are hard to climb, which makes them a slip and fall hazard.
With this in mind, ensure that your stairways adhere to California building codes: the rise of each step should be no less than 4 inches and no greater than 7.5”, while the run of each stair should be no less than 10 inches as measured horizontally.
Stairways that do not adhere to those code requirements may need to be rebuilt.
California Landlords: Keep Your Stairs Safe And Comply With SB-721
Keeping your stairs safe is a critical way to care for and protect your tenants and their visitors.
It’s also a legal requirement for apartment owners, landlords, and managers.
According to SB-721, the wooden exterior elevated elements of apartment buildings (including stairways and walkways) must be professionally inspected at least once every six years, with the first inspection occurring by January 1, 2025.
This law applies to buildings with 3 or more multifamily dwelling units with decks, stairways, balconies, porches, walkways, or entry structures extending beyond the building’s exterior walls and having a walking surface elevated 6” or more above the ground.
Fortunately, the team here at Deck and Balcony Inspections, Inc. is familiar with the inspection requirements of SB-721 and will work with you and your team to ensure a comprehensive, thorough inspection that complies with state laws and keeps your tenants safe on your building’s stairways.
We’ll also help you consider other factors that may impact your stairways’ safety, help you avoid accidents, and get compliant with state and local laws including San Francisco Section 604, and Berkeley’s Exterior Elevated Elements (E3) Program.
Ultimately, there’s an enormous liability if a hazardous condition is allowed to fester and someone gets injured.
Keep this in mind:
Just because your building complies with SB-721 does not mean you’re automatically in compliance with Section 604 of the San Francisco Housing Code. You need to meet the compliance guidelines of each law separately.
Ready to learn more? Contact us today to request your FREE inspection quote.
DISCLAIMER: The resources provided by Deck & Balcony Inspections, Inc., are for educational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Consult your counsel if you have legal questions about your specific practices and compliance with applicable laws.
Dan Cronk is the Founder & President of Deck and Balcony Inspections, Inc. Dan has 40+ years of experience in the construction industry. As a certified structural inspector and general contractor, Dan has extensive knowledge about California’s deck and balcony laws and enjoys sharing his expertise with the community.