Shakedown: Class lines crumble as slip-and-falls trip co-ops, condos

By Teri Karush Rogers | November 19, 2009 - 6:14AM

After reading a Chicago Tribune story on a national spike in slip-and-fall lawsuits against homeowners associations—a phenomenon thought to go hand-in-hand with a down economy—we checked in with some local lawyers and managing agents to see what's happening here.

Several said they had indeed seen more co-ops and condos slapped with personal injury claims.

“I’m seeing an uptick in smaller claims, like ‘I tripped on the stairs so you owe me ten grand,’” says Dean Roberts, a real estate lawyer with Norris McLaughlin & Marcus in Manhattan. “Tripping on the doormats is a big favorite. And there are always the infamous elevator door attacks—‘It closed on my arm and my shoulder was disclocated.’”

But Roberts says that people are also settling faster and for less—presumably for the same reason that they filed the case: They need the money yesterday.

What’s more, says personal injury lawyer Jason Paris of Paris & Chaikin, the lawsuits are bleeding through class lines.

“If you were to break down your typical personal injury plaintiff by income or class level you have a definite line of demarcation, where it takes a much more serious injury to have someone consider bringing a suit if they’re middle or upper middle class,” says Paris.

“These days it’s not so much that people are manufacturing cases were there aren’t any—it’s that people who might have ordinarily dusted themselves off are now pursuing litigation,” he observes.

Paris says most of his cases involve non-residents invited as guests to the building.  But real estate lawyer Eric Goidel says he’s noticing more residents suing the buildings he represents.

“Whenever the world becomes more challenging, people take actions they normally would not consider,” says Goidel, a partner at Borah Goldstein Altschuler Nahins & Goidel.

Most claims are covered by insurance, and insurers often settle for nominal sums without regard to the merit of the claim, says Goidel, in order to avoid exposure to a larger reward.

Unfortunately, word has spread that so long as the demand is not egregious, it is often easy to get a quick check,” he says.  

Generally, early settlements come in under $35,000, and most buildings typically must pay the first $10,000, says Goidel.  But that's not the only tab for buildings: Higher deductibles and even cancelled insurance sometimes follow.

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