Liability for Slips and Falls

Who's to blame when someone gets injured at an open house? Reduce your risk of legal liability by taking steps to prevent slips and falls.

March 1, 2006

On a cold and rainy January day I attended an open house at a cozy, cheery property. The house had loads of charm: shiny wood floors, brightly burning candles, and many flights of stairs in unusual places.

It also had loads of potential liability for the listing agent and her company. If a visitor had slipped on those shiny floors, knocked over a candle, or fell down the stairs, a legal nightmare could be born.

Slip-and-fall accidents are simple — someone enters a store or other place where the public is invited and gets injured by something that was preventable by the owner. Preventable, in the legal world, means foreseeable: the responsible person should have realized it would be a problem and sought either to warn the public or to remove the danger.

The classic example is the banana peel in the grocery store. A potential shopper comes to the store, slips on a banana peel, and sues. The store knew that it was selling bananas, that bananas fall, and that fallen bananas create a risky situation. Failure to clean up a squished banana leads to liability when that unwary shopper slips and gets injured.

You might think that an open house is different from a grocery store when it comes to liability. After all, it's a private home. But when you invite the public into a property for the purpose of selling it, it’s treated just like the grocery store from the point of view of liability. And that's not all: when you, the real estate professional, invite the public to an open house, you may be treated like the owner of that grocery store should someone get hurt.

Take Preventative Action

Depending on the state you live in, the practitioner and the real estate brokerage may be liable for slip-and-fall accidents that occur during an open house.

This usually means compensation for the injured person’s medical bills, lost work time, and even future wages. Many states have followed the lead of New Jersey, which decided in 1993 that a real estate professional conducting an open house has a duty to provide for the safety of the visitors. A decision four years later in Michigan held that the home owners are not liable for injuries sustained on the property, but that the real estate practitioner is liable.

The message here is clear: practitioners should think about visitor safety before an open house or they may be tied up legally and financially.

Tips for a Safe Open House

Before an open house begins, do a walk-through to make sure potential hazards are removed. Here are some practical steps to follow to eliminate safety risks:

  • Get rid of rugs. Remove all throw rugs, including those with rubber-backing. This eliminates a source of slips, trips, and other unplanned moves.
  • Clear the stairs. Make sure that the staircases are cleared of magazines and books (even the artistically-arranged-in-a-basket piles), brooms, shoes, etc.
  • Keep shoes on. Think twice about whether visitors should really have to take off their shoes. While most people will comply, you have just put them into slippery socks on unfamiliar surfaces. Likewise with the dust booties that are offered at some open houses. Arrange for a cleaning service to come in following an open house if this is an issue for the home owner.
  • Guard danger areas. Position yourself or your assistants at tricky or unusual stairs. Particularly in the places where there are one or two stairs that a prospective buyer might not be aware of or in places where they would be looking at something else while walking.
  • No animals allowed. Send all pets away during an open house. At best they are a distraction, and they could cause direct injuries. A relative, neighbor, or a doggy day care might help out for the hours needed.
  • Blow out the flames. Eliminate burning candles — it takes just one unnoticed tip to start a major disaster. Leave a few selected lights on to add a feeling of warmth as an alternative to candles.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Your company can develop a checklist of common issues. For the less common issues, the sellers are a vital resource since they know the property's ins and outs.

Make a safety consultation part of your routine for your discussions with sellers prior to an open house. By planning ahead with your company and your client, you can eliminate the foreseeable hazards and create a smooth and successful open house.