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Nathaniel Fick
Nathaniel Fick
Attorney • (410) 321-6000

Premises Safety: Stairs and Stairwells

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In Maryland, premises safety as to stairs and stairwells involves the same elements that are in play for spilled substances on floors in a grocery store. Duty to the injured party, the status of the injured party, knowledge by the owner of any danger, time for the owner to correct any danger, and the extent of damages to the injured party.

In most cases, the duty to the injured party is paramount. The injured party must have the kind of status that the premises owner owes a duty to: for example, social invitee or business invitee as opposed to a “bare licensee” or trespasser.

If you are a “social invitee” (guest in someone else’s house or a guest of an owner of a condominium) or a “business invitee” (retail establishment, office building, grocery store) the owner or lessee owes a duty to keep the premises safe. If a stairway is poorly lit, the stairs are uneven, the stairs are marble or stone and mats are not laid down, or the stairs or stairwell are wet or slippery – and the owner knows that condition exists (or should have known it)—even a careful walk on those stairs – minding your own duty to yourself to be aware of any danger—might leave you injured.

Balconies or platforms are subject to the same analysis. So an appellate case in Maryland found for the “social guest” or “social invitee” to a restaurant and lounge when she tried to go upstairs to visit someone in an apartment on that second floor (leased by the restaurant and lounge) and a railing on a platform gave way–she fell 17 feet to the ground.

The status of the injured woman was the prime issue before the court. After extensive discussion the court found she was a “social invitee.” And the premises owners owed her a duty to keep the premises safe—which the court also found the premises owner did not do in her case.

Maryland continues to follow the rule which recognizes a lesser duty owned by property owners to persons regarded as mere “licensees” or trespassers than is owed to persons deemed to be “invitees.” A “business invitee” is a person invited or permitted to enter or remain on another’s property for purposes connected with or related to the owner’s business. And a “social invitee” is invited to another property for social occasions. In those cases, a premises owner must use reasonable and ordinary care to keep the premises safe. That means, for example, to protect any “invitee” from injury caused by an unreasonable risk which the invitee, by exercising ordinary care for their own safety will not discover.

By contrast, a “licensee” is a person who enters the property with the knowledge and consent of the property owner but for the licensee’s own purposes or interest (i.e., a utility company employee reading a meter). As to a licensee, the premises owner owes no duty except to abstain from willful or wanton misconduct or entrapment.

The lowest level of status is, of course, a trespasser. A trespasser is a person who enters or remains on the premises without the knowledge, authority, or consent of the premises owner. Under current Maryland law, the property owner owes a trespasser no duty except to abstain from willful or wanton misconduct.

However, the premises owner to be liable must still have knowledge of the danger and an appropriate time to correct the danger. So when a business invitee claims to have slipped on wet stairs and the premises owner is not previously aware of that danger, the premises owner may not be liable. The same result in dealing with a slippery substance—if the premises owner has not been made aware of the danger, no liability may result. But if a retail mall owner or manager knows that a fountain spray will likely get a nearby stairs wet, and does nothing about it, it is extremely possible that liability will be found as to a business invitee.

For property or premises owners these are among the key issues in stairway safety:

  • keep riser heights uniform, variations in riser heights can case trips and falls;
  • if the stairway is fitted with “nosings” (projected edge of a stair tread, or shield covering)  — keep them regular and conspicuous;
  • stairs with fewer than four risers are called “low rise stairs” and are associated with a higher frequency of falls;
  • handrails should be within 30 inches of any travel path; and
  • flooring materials should be securely attached to treads and risers.

In addition, stairway safety is also affected by: lighting, slip-resistance, surroundings, maintenance, and condition.

So: Status—of the injured party. Duty—of the premises owner. Knowledge—of the danger (by the premises owner). Time to correct any danger—of the premises owner. And damages. These elements must come together in the injured party’s favor to recover any damages that occurred in the incident.

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  1. Allan W. Steinhorn says:
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    Very informative and helpful article. Thank you for the information!