According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 8 million people were treated in U.S. emergency rooms in 2013 for slips, trips, and other accidental falls, making such accidents the leading cause of nonfatal injuries and the third leading cause of injury resulting in death that year. Changes in elevation are not only a common cause of accidental falls, but also a common factual scenario underlying premises liability claims. However, a recent South Carolina federal district court decision, Yankowitz v. D.R. Horton, Inc., 2015 WL 1637175 (D.S.C. 2015), clarifies that a change in elevation alone does not constitute a dangerous condition necessary to support a premises liability claim.
In Yankowitz, the plaintiff allegedly fell while navigating a change in elevation of a few inches leading into the garage of a model home she was touring. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, reasoning:
The mere fact that there is a difference between the levels in the different parts of the premises does not, in itself, indicate negligence, unless, owing to the character, location and surrounding condition of the change of level, a reasonably careful person would not be likely to expect or see it . . . a step-down or step-up upon premises does not, in and of itself, constitute negligence.
* * *
Steps are common features of entrances and egresses of homes and businesses. The existence of a step, without some other showing of peculiar circumstances, does not render Defendant negligent.
Id. at *2-*3 (internal citations omitted).
According to the court, the plaintiff failed to demonstrate the defendant had notice that the step-down was potentially dangerous. The plaintiff presented no evidence of anything unusual about the step in question, nor did she present evidence of prior accidents involving the step. Accordingly, there was insufficient evidence to create a question of fact as to whether the step constituted a dangerous condition as required to support a premises liability claim.
In short, the Yankowitz decision recognizes what we all know to be true—changes in elevation are a commonplace and necessary aspect of premises. The district court’s ruling further recognizes that changes in elevation are not inherently dangerous. Accordingly, to establish a premises liability claim arising from a change in level, the plaintiff must present specific evidence demonstrating the step constitutes a dangerous condition.