Water Alone is Often not Enough When it Comes to Landowner Liability

While slip-and-fall cases are not as common as, for example, motor vehicle accidents, numerous slip and fall cases are filed in Washington courts every year. Often times, these cases involve an allegation that the plaintiff slipped on either water, or some other substance that was allegedly spilled onto the floor. In both cases, the duty of a landowner is one of reasonable care. Geise v. Lee, 84 Wn. 2d 866, 868, 529 P.2d 1054 (1975). Therefore, a landowner is not a guarantor of safety. Id. at 871. The fact that a person slips and falls does not, by itself, mean that there is an unreasonably dangerous condition. See Knopp v. Kemp & Hebert, 193 Wn. 160, 164–65, 74 P.2d 924 (1938) (“It is common knowledge that people fall on the best of sidewalks and floors. A fall, therefore, does not, of itself, tend to prove that the surface over which one is walking is dangerously unfit for the purpose”).

In Wiltse v. Albertson’s Inc., 116 Wn. 2d 452, 459–60, 805 P.2d 793 (1991), the Washington Supreme Court cited with approval the following observations by the Ninth Circuit in Kangley v. United States, 788 F.2d 533, 534–35 (9th Cir. 1986):

Washington cases make it clear that the mere presence of water on a floor where the plaintiff slipped is not enough to prove negligence on the part of the owner or occupier of the building. To prove negligence, the plaintiff must prove that water makes the floor dangerously slippery and that the owner knew or should have known both that water would make the floor slippery and that there was water on the floor at the time the plaintiff slipped.

(emphases added). In Brant v. Market Basket Stores, Inc., 72 Wn. 2d 446, 448-49 433 P.2d 863 (1967), the Washington Supreme Court noted the disparity with which it has found liability based on the presence of water on the floor vs. another “foreign” substance:

While we have had many cases resulting from slips and falls on premises where it was the duty of the owner or proprietor to exercise reasonable care to maintain in a safe condition such portions of his premises as he invites the public to use for the purposes of the owner’s or proprietor’s business therein, there has, in almost every case, been some foreign substance other than water on the floor.

(emphasis added).

In sum, Washington courts seem to agree that the mere presence of water is usually not enough to establish land owner liability for a slip and fall and that, in order to prevail, a plaintiff must also prove that the land owner knew or had reason to know about the water and that the water made the floor dangerously slippery. Moreover, while a land owner’s duty of care with respect to other substances potentially making a floor dangerously slippery is the same as with water, findings of landowner liability for slip and fall cases involving other substances seem to be far more common.

By – Jeremy Zener