Much has changed since Barbara Anderson slipped on some ice two years ago in the parking lot of a Denny's restaurant in Coon Rapids. Anderson, 65, has a titanium rod in her right leg, a profound anxiety about walking outside in winter and the remnants of a $120,000 legal settlement.
But one thing is the same: The downspout from the roof of the Denny's still empties into the handicapped parking space, creating what one safety consultant called a "freezing lake effect" that left Anderson flat on her back and screaming in pain. Earlier this month, an icy mound had built up once again in the handicapped parking space, despite a generous sprinkling of ice melt crystals.
Anderson and her family are disturbed that her accident didn't prompt the restaurant to move the downspout so the hazard would be eliminated. A spokeswoman for the restaurant chain declined to comment.
According to slip-and-fall experts, it's typical for property owners and their insurers to pay settlements and go back to business as usual.
"Most companies look at slip-and-fall injuries as a cost of doing business," said Russ Kendzior, who has served as an expert witness in more than 400 slip-and-fall cases, for both plaintiffs and defendants.
Kendzior, a former flooring salesman who started a Texas-based organization called the National Floor Safety Institute, thinks businesses ought to take steps to improve safety after accidental falls. But even after costly legal settlements and verdicts, that doesn't usually happen. Kendzior said insurance companies should put more pressure on property owners, perhaps by refusing to pay claims for known hazards.
Anderson's lawyer, Jeff Sieben, said Denny's helped make Anderson "whole," but that's all he could ask for in litigation.
"We can't demand that they try to prevent other people from having this problem," he said.
Each year, about one million people are hurt in slip-and-fall accidents, with 16,000 of them dying as a result, according to a 2008 report from the Chicago insurance company CNA. In fact, falls are the leading cause of nonfatal accidents treated in emergency rooms.
Fraudulent claims are rare
While people faking injuries often make the news, fraudulent claims make up less than 3 percent of slip-and-fall cases, Kendzior said. A single injury can often result in a six-figure insurance payout. In 2009, a Texas jury awarded $4.4 million to a woman who suffered a brain injury after losing her balance on a wet supermarket floor.
Anderson, who lives in St. Francis, said she would gladly trade the money for her life before that visit to Denny's. On Feb. 6, 2009, Anderson, a longtime hair stylist then working in telemarketing, drove to the Denny's on Northdale Boulevard with her sister-in-law, Joyce Clark. An old back injury made it hard for her to walk long distances, so she had a handicapped parking sticker on her car. She pulled into the spot right next to the entrance.
The evening had turned colder after a thaw earlier in the day. While Clark headed to the bathroom, Anderson walked out of Denny's and stepped toward her car a few feet away. She opened the door. The next thing she knew, she was lying under the vehicle. Anderson tried to pull herself up, but her right foot was bent at an unnatural angle and she started to scream.
One of the paramedics who arrived at Denny's also stumbled on the ice and nearly fell on Anderson, Clark recalled. Anderson spent four days in Mercy Hospital, emerging with five-figure medical bills that paid for her surgically reinforced leg.
Anderson missed about two months of work and returned to her telemarketing job for only a few weeks before deciding to retire.
For a year and a half, Sieben, her attorney, negotiated with Denny's and her car insurance company. He drew up a draft lawsuit and delivered it to the Denny's franchise, part of the 1,600-restaurant chain based in South Carolina. In January 2010, a floor safety consultant working for Sieben went to the restaurant and took pictures of the icy patch in the handicapped parking space.
"We're a society that tolerates a certain amount of slippage," Sieben said. "We don't tolerate it when engineers create skating rinks in parking lots."
The case settled last summer. Sieben said the law firm took its customary third, which also covered investigative costs. Anderson used most of her portion for medical bills and living expenses while she was unemployed.
These days, Anderson can walk unassisted, but her dancing days are over. "I'll never be the same after that fall," she said.