Balance and perception are interrelated. A pedestrian must see and evaluate accurately all relevant conditions in order to maintain balance and avoid falling. Any feature or condition that tends to distract a pedestrian’s attention increases the risk of falling. Even some features and devices that are intended to serve as warnings can create a hazard or increase the risk of injury. Here, experienced slip and fall attorney, Charles E. Turnbow, provides a brief overview of four common distractions that tend to divert a pedestrian’s attention and lead to slip and fall incidents, and offers a practice-tested tip for proving the nature of the distraction.
(1) Orientation Edges
The single most important visual flag is the “orientation edge,” which is a structural or visual feature that draws the pedestrian’s attention some distance ahead of his present location. The horizontal and vertical edges of the orientation edge assist the pedestrian in aligning with the axis of the feature. The vertical walls of a stairwell, for example, assist the pedestrian in maintaining balance by providing a visual reference. Likewise, the slope of a handrail acts as an orientation edge, clarifying the location of the steps and the approximate steepness or angle of the stairway. Sometimes, though, orientation edges may draw the pedestrian’s attention away from an important feature of the stairway or walkway. When this happens, a misstep is likely to occur. For example, a stairway leading to an open lobby or display area is dangerous at the point where the wide-open area becomes visible to a descending individual. This point is where most accidents are likely to occur. The pedestrian’s attention and concentration are directed to the open space and not to the stairway, which causes a loss of equilibrium and possible loss of balance. If adequate handrails are not available to assist the pedestrian in regaining or maintaining balance, a fall is likely to result. The use of mirrors on stairwells also can create problems for the pedestrian. When the mirrored surfaces are set at an angle or intersect at an angle, the reflected view can present a deceptive orientation edge. An individual relying on the edge as a balance reference may experience vertigo, with a resultant loss of balance.
(2) Geometric Patterns
The patterns formed by brick or other paving materials can create difficulty in perceiving the existence and location of the step edge. For example, when bricks are laid “jack on jack,” they line up in neat rows. The edges or noses of individual steps are difficult to see under these conditions. Without visual flags to assist the pedestrian, a misstep can occur.
(3) Vehicular and Pedestrian Traffic
At intersections, and in parking lots and interior parking garages, one of the most common and serious distractions is actual or potential vehicular traffic. As a rule, the pedestrian’s attention will be directed to the area of activity that presents the most immediate and obvious risk. Vehicular traffic presents a potentially greater risk to the individual than does a slippery or uneven surface. Thus, the pedestrian typically is more concerned about vehicular traffic than the walkway. Therefore, it is essential that the walkway be free of slipping and tripping hazards. Moving objects with large masses tend to draw one’s attention and focus. For example, the passing of a large truck often causes a driver to veer slightly to the left. Likewise, a pedestrian will look at or toward large moving objects. Even if a vehicle is to the side or back of the pedestrian, the pedestrian has an awareness of the vehicle that distracts her, in part, from the walkway or other conditions.
(4) Point-of-Purchase Displays
Many retail stores display merchandise in “point-of-purchase” displays located near the ends of the aisles or “end caps” of the stores. If they are effective, the displays will draw the patron’s attention away from the floor area. If there is debris or foreign material on the floor, a slip and fall accident may occur when the patron’s eyes are diverted towards the display. In addition, special displays or sale signs are common in nearly all retail stores. Studies conducted by retailers have determined that the most effective displays and signs are located 3-to-4-1/2 feet above floor level. Shelf merchandise is displayed up to 6 feet above the floor. As patrons shop, their focus generally is directed above waist-height. This problem is further complicated in grocery stores where patrons use shopping carts. A full or partially full cart can block the view of the floor area in front of the patron, creating a hazard when debris or liquid is on the floor.
Practice Tip: Video will help to establish the nature of the distraction
If your slip and fall case involves one of these visual distractions, demonstrative evidence will be invaluable in establishing the nature of the distraction. If possible, use real-time motion picture or video photography to illustrate vehicular traffic in the area, the closeness of moving objects, confusing signage and other conditions difficult to portray by still photographs or verbal description. The video camera should be tripod mounted at eye level and focused in the direction of travel. Panning slowly to the right or left should be effective in establishing peripheral visual distractions. This post is excerpted from Slip and Fall Practice, by Charles E. Turnbow. Mr. Turnbow is an attorney and a professional safety engineer, with more than 40 years’ experience in the field. Since he first testified as an expert in 1959, he has been retained on more than 10,000 cases, the vast majority of those being slip and fall cases. Mr. Turnbow is a board certified forensic engineer, and a member of the California State Bar, the American Bar Association, the International Conference of Building Officials, and the American Society of Testing and Materials. Slip and Fall Practice takes the guesswork out of these challenging cases. This practice-focused book gives you the tools you need to prove causation (the biggest hurdle in these cases) and establish damages. You will learn how to evaluate a potential new case and client; how to manage slip and fall litigation, from pleadings through trial; and techniques and tactics for handling specific types of falls (e.g., workplace falls; falls in markets; falls by the elderly or disabled).