Our question this week comes from Marissa: “I am 65 years old. I live in a one of these new ‘over 50 communities’ which was built in the last 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 the first stair. I reached for the railing and couldn’t get a grip because it was just a painted 2×6 nailed to the wall. I fell down a whole flight of stairs and compressed two vertebra in my neck, 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?“>
Dear Marissa, yes there are rules that govern the construction of buildings, 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 treads next week.The rules governing safety in floor surfaces, stairways, and handrails are contained within the California Building Code (CBC).
Since you did not specify where you live I will refer to the CBC as a model for answering your questions. Building codes, since 1981, have been adapted to bring construction in 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 your building.First, we start by looking at the plans (perhaps 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/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 CBD 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 (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 1 1/4 inches (32 mm) nor more than 1 ½ 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 hand around the handrail. (Your thumb needs to be able to grab around something.) Additionally, “handrails projecting from a wall shall have a space of 1 ½ 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.
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