Slips and Falls: Lessons Learned

Host: Hello and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators Risk Management Podcast. Today’s discussion on slips and falls is hosted by Joanne Dunlap, who is the Risk Programs Researcher for United Educators’ Risk Management department. Joanne is joined by UE colleague Melanie Bennett, Senior Risk Management Counsel, to discuss lessons learned from slip and fall claims. A reminder to listeners that you can find other UE podcasts as well as UE risk management resources on our website, Our podcasts are also available on Apple Podcast and Spotify. As a reminder, this is a risk management podcast, and nothing in this podcast should be considered legal advice. Now here’s Joanne. 

Joanne Dunlap: Thanks for joining me today, Melanie. 

Melanie Bennett: I’m happy to be here. 

Dunlap: So Melanie, you conducted a claim study on the slip and fall claims UE members encountered between 2016 and 2020. So when I’m thinking about risk management topics in education, I would venture to guess slip and falls is not considered as one of the more interesting topics. Which leads me to my first question: Why do a claim study on slips and falls over other topic areas? 

Bennett: I agree with you. When I first came into this project, I wasn’t sure if slips and falls was going to make for a great claims study. I had a few concerns that I think schools might share. The first is slips and falls can be really varied from one incident to the next, both from the type of place where it happens to what happens exactly, to a slip vs. a fall. I wasn’t sure if there was a relation across the board and if there were going to be trends that would lead to lessons. 

Additionally, when we’re thinking about slips and falls, a lot of the times you’re thinking about smaller losses. You might not think that there is much need to focus that much in this area. However, and we’re going to talk about this more, through the study I actually found that there are some very wide-ranging trends that are interesting, that really apply across the board and create lessons that schools aren’t necessarily following yet because they don’t know that it’s an issue. 

Dunlap: OK, that’s great. So what surprised you the most about your findings? 

Bennett: There was one trend that I never would’ve expected at the start. Vendors of sidewalk in particular would sell concrete to schools and provide misinformation that caused problems. So specifically, concrete vendors would sell this gorgeous, shiny, potentially slippery concrete to schools saying, “When it gets cold, when it gets icy, when there’s snow, put down sand on top of it and that’ll solve the problem for you. Don’t use salt, you’d normally use salt, but that can destroy the concrete, and this is beautiful concrete. So to not destroy the concrete, use sand.” 

The only problem with that is sand does not necessarily remove ice and snow. It may provide a bit more traction, but it’s not going to remove the ice in the way that schools need. And so the schools in these cases would realize that and eventually either have to replace the concrete or use salt for a while until the concrete started to degrade and then replace the concrete at that point. In the end, the vendor’s misinformation really misled the schools and caused a lot of problems. 

Dunlap: That’s really interesting. I never would’ve thought that that would’ve been the type of issue that it sounds like it is. Melanie, there are so many variations of slips and falls that might occur on campus, and you just gave us an example of one. What were the main theories of liability that drove the claims you reviewed? 

Bennett: I saw three common allegations in the claims that I reviewed. The first was failure to inspect, maintain, and repair. So for example, there was a back staircase people weren’t paying all that much attention to, and there were leaves on the staircase that day. So somebody had tripped on the leaves, they fell, they reported it to the school. The school maintenance logged it as an issue and then didn’t actually do anything about it. So later that day when somebody else was using the same staircase, [they]tripped over that same pile of leaves and injured themselves. That was a big problem and that person, when they brought litigation, alleged that the school had failed to inspect, maintain, and repair that staircase. 

Another common allegation is the failure to warn, and I saw that one a lot with wet floors. So on a rainy day, people are walking inside [onto] floors that aren’t usually slippery, but because they’re tracking in the water from the rainy day, it becomes slippery. And over time, it continues to happen. When somebody would fall on that floor, they’d say to the school, “You didn’t put up signs warning that it was going to be wet. You should have known that it was going to be wet, that it was going to be slippery, because that happens every time it’s wet outside, but you didn’t. You didn’t put up signage, therefore, I didn’t know to be cautious, and therefore I fell down.” So that’s the failure to warn. 

And the third common allegation was negligent supervision of students. That one I particularly saw for K-12 schools, especially on playgrounds. So you’ll have a situation where there are 50 students out playing on the playground and you have one teacher supervising them. A little girl goes and plays on the jungle gym, she falls, she breaks her tooth, and the parents allege that there was negligent supervision. If there had been more teachers out on the playground, they could have been watching the kids more closely and the student wouldn’t have injured herself. So those were the three most common allegations that I saw. 

Dunlap: Thanks, Melanie. That was really insightful. So then, what were the lessons learned? What should institutions be focusing on to help mitigate additional injury and liability in the future? 

Bennett: Well, this was a particularly interesting study because as you’ve seen Joanne, there were so many lessons. And in order to not give you a ridiculous number of lessons on this podcast, I’ll focus on one lesson regarding prevention and one lesson regarding response. So the most interesting prevention lesson that I found was that schools should treat risks on property with unclear responsibility. What does that mean? It means that in a lot of cases, there were slips and falls on property that nobody knew who it belonged to. 

So for instance, you’ll have a sidewalk right outside the school. We’ll assume the city owns it. The city will assume the school owns it. There may be a third party who potentially owns it. And because of all of that, nobody’s actually taking care of the sidewalk, and nobody may know that it’s an issue until one day somebody’s walking along the sidewalk and trips on the broken concrete, and then suddenly it’s a very big issue for any parties who possibly own that sidewalk, including the school. You have to figure out who actually owns it, and they’re going to be potentially liable for this injury. 

So instead, it’s much better to one, look in advance around the property, see if there are any parts of your property that may belong to the school but you’re not sure, and investigate on the front end, who does this belong to? Who is supposed to do the maintenance? And two, if you’re just not sure and the school might own the property, take care of it. Put up barriers and signage on places where it’s not well maintained. Do the maintenance, get rid of ice and leaves when you need to. So that was a surprising lesson on the front end for prevention.  

And for response, there was also an interesting lesson I didn’t expect at the start. Supporting people injured in slips and falls is incredibly important and makes a big difference in the process. I saw examples of both schools doing this really well, supporting the people who were injured, whether they were third-party contractors, employees, students, visitors, supporting those people who then felt really good about it. I also saw some really bad examples where the school did not provide any type of support to the person who was injured, and then litigation eventually happened that didn’t necessarily need to happen. 

One great example is when a student slipped and fell and injured both of her arms. She was a young girl and the school immediately went to support her and her parents saying, “We’re sorry this happened. What can we do? Can we provide a paraprofessional to sit in the classes with her and take notes?” Because she’d broken her arms, she couldn’t take notes for herself. The parents were so pleased with this response, they then contacted the school and said how much they appreciated that response. And there was no litigation. 

On the other hand, an example of a school not providing much support. A student had fallen on stairs. He injured his knee, and he said to the school, “Look, I’m mostly OK, but I live in student housing. My room is up on the fifth floor. I don’t have an elevator, and I can’t go upstairs right now. I broke my knee. Can you just help me get temporary housing during this period?” The school didn’t respond to his requests. They were not communicative in any way, and they didn’t help him with housing. And that was a situation where there was later litigation that possibly could have been prevented had the school just been supportive upfront. So that was another area where it was just an interesting lesson I didn’t expect at the start. 

Dunlap: So really, what I’m hearing there is that just having an empathetic response could really go a long way to making a potential claimant not actually take a situation further because they feel like they’ve been treated fairly. 

Bennett: Absolutely. It makes all the difference in the world to have support there, and therefore an interesting point is train somebody on the front end to be that communicator for the school so they know how to perform effective outreach and what the school does and does not want them to do. 

Dunlap: So Melanie, what were your key takeaways after completing the claim study? 

Bennett: There are two big takeaways that I think all schools can use from this study. The first is making sure you have somebody assigned to do regular walkway and floor inspections. Unless you have somebody assigned to go around with a checklist looking at all of the potential issues on your campus, it’s unlikely you’ll know that they exist. We’re talking about degradation. That can often happen really slowly. You won’t necessarily know that the stairs are now a little angled and they weren’t before, and that needs to be fixed. A handrail has pulled away from the wall sum, concrete is a little broken in this area. Those are all things that can be found during an inspection, but if you don’t have that inspection in place, you may not find it. 

The second piece is the response. Make sure you have a slip hazard and incident reporting system in place. And a lot of schools don’t have this yet, so it’s a good thing to look around and see if it’s in place. And then if it is, make sure that it’s working. So there are two pieces. One, when people see slips around campus, not just the person who’s doing the regular inspection, but anybody, you want them to be able to know, “This is a potential hazard. I need to report it and I know where to report it.” 

So does that function exist currently? And if it does, is it working correctly? Do those reports go to risk management? Do they go to maintenance? And are people within those departments following up on them when they receive them? If not, do they need to go somewhere else so someone can keep track as they’re coming in and make sure there’s a response? And also make sure there’s the incident reporting system. When an incident happens, when somebody slips and falls, then someone needs to report that to the school so the school can respond. So employees should be trained on these systems so they know that they exist, how they work, and what happens when the report goes to the school. Once you have those things in place, you have a really strong system to help support preventing slips and falls and responding correctly when they happen. 

Dunlap: That’s great Melanie, thank you so much. Well, that’s our podcast for today. You can download Melanie’s claims study, which is titled Help Prevent and Respond to Slips and Falls, from our website, Thanks so much for your time, Melanie. 

Host: From United Educators insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection Podcast. For additional episodes and other risk management resources, please visit our website at 

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