A recent case involves a hidden stairway and the tragic wrongful death of a 21-year-old college student. Samuel Jacob Freeman sought out a quiet alcove in a bar he was patronizing to conduct a cell phone conversation. In his quest, he fell backward down a flight of 12 wooden stairs, striking the back of his head on the landing below. He suffered a severe subdural hematoma and traumatic brain injury, from which he died several days later.
His parents as individuals and on behalf of his estate sued the bar’s owner alleging that the stairs were dangerous and violated the state building code (the accident occurred in Massachusetts). Key to the allegations were the following: 1) Plaintiff’s contention that the stairway lacked adequate lighting and code compliant handrails and; 2) that the individual steps lacked proper riser heights and tread depth, which rendered them dangerously steep and, 3) that the entrance to the stairway was covered only by dark-colored vinyl strips and not a self-closing door as required by the building code.
In addition to the negligence and strict liability code violations, the plaintiffs alleged that breach of the building code violated the state’s unfair and deceptive trade practices act. Under state law, violation of the statute intended to protect the public’s health and safety may constitute a violation of the trade practices act.
The trail court submitted the negligence and statutory strict liability claims to the jury but reserved the unfair trade and deceptive trade practices claim. The jury found that the defendants were negligent and had violated the building codes, but that these were not constitute the proximate cause of Freeman’s fatal injuries.
Most interestingly, the court found that the defendant’s violations of the state building codes constituted a violation of the state unfair and deceptive trade practices act and awarded treble damages totaling approximately $6.73 million.
The Chicago accident lawyers at the Lloyd Miller Law Group find this case an interesting study in the litigation of premises liability and very informative in stating the prima facia case for accidents sustained during falls on stairs. However, the addition of the violations of the state’s unfair and deceptive trade practices act opens the door to other means to hold landlords and owners of premises open to the public liable for their negligence or disregard for code violations and basic issues of building safety.