Our question this week comes from Marissa C.:
Q: “I am 65 years old. I live in one of these new ‘over-50 communities,’ which was built in the past three years. Recently, I was taking my trash out. I walk down the stairs for exercise, and I missed the first step as the carpet was all the same color and it was hard to see it. I reached for the railing and couldn’t get a grip because it was just a painted 2-by-6-inch board nailed to the wall. I fell down a whole flight of stairs and compressed two vertebra in my neck, and now I have to have surgery. The landlord’s manager told me I should have opened my eyes and been watching where I was going. Isn’t there some rule about carpet, stairs and handrails?”
A: Yes, there are rules that govern the construction of buildings, including the layout of carpet, stairs and handrails. In my job, you have to know a little about everything, and your question stands at the intersection of architecture and law. Having stood at this intersection too many times already, I can usually tell if there is negligence by looking at the stairs.
From just hearing about your situation, I believe there is negligence and your landlord is most likely liable for your injuries. I will address the handrails this week and the carpet-stair issue next week.
The rules governing safety in floor surfaces, stairways and handrails are contained within the California Building Code. Since you did not specify where you live, I will refer to the CBC as a model for answering your questions.
Since 1981, building codes have been adapted to bring construction into conformity with the Americans With Disabilities Act concerning accessibility. So consideration of the ADA technical assistance manuals also comes into play. The CBC is amended from time to time and, when considering the requirements, applied in the construction of buildings.
First, we start by looking at the plans (perhaps they’re on file at the building department or we get them through a lawsuit). If they had details for different handrails or carpet layout, they can be used to show negligent deviation from the plans. This corner-cutting by the contractor is often done to save a buck at the expense of safety.
Another way of proving negligence is to look at the safety and building codes in effect at the time of construction.
In older buildings, if there have been subsequent modifications or renovations, they may have triggered building upgrades to meet current requirements under the CBC and ADA. Since your building is relatively new, it makes the analysis easier.
A party is presumed negligent where it is shown that the party violated a statute, ordinance or safety regulation of a public entity and that such violation was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s harm (see California Evidence Code 669). The CBC can be used for this purpose.
The CBC provides that “the handgrip portion of handrails shall be not less than 1¼ inches (32 mm) nor more than 1½ inches (38 mm) in cross-sectional nominal dimension or the shape shall provide an equivalent gripping surface. The handgrip portion of handrails shall have a smooth surface with no sharp corners” (California Building Code Section 1133B.4.2.6). In layman’s terms, handrails must either be round or otherwise have an adequate gripping surface by which individuals can place their hands around the handrail (your thumb needs to be able to grab around something). Additionally, “handrails projecting from a wall shall have a space of 1½ inches (38 mm) between the wall and the handrail” (CBC Section 1133B.4.25).
In the present case, the handrail did not comply with the CBC in that it failed to provide an adequate gripping surface for you. Therefore, on that point alone, negligence may “befall” the landlord because you were unable to steady yourself as you lost your balance. Call a trial lawyer to come and look at the stairs. They will help you to get the landlord to open their eyes and help you with your serious injuries and medical bills.
Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to email@example.com.