Slip and fall accidents injure hundreds of thousands of people per year in the United States. Safety advocate Russel Kendzior has devoted his professional career to providing expert testimony, consulting, and developing what he hopes to become federal standards for the flooring industry. He is the founder of the National Floor Safety Institute (NFSI) and the owner of the consulting firm Traction Experts. With Kendzior's expertise being featured in articles for Bloomberg and Insider, he is an eminent leader in the field of accident prevention. We had the chance to speak with him about the expert witness process and the challenges his non-profit organization is up against.
What is the nature of your business and how did you first become an authority in the slip and fall prevention industry?
The NFSI was founded back in 1997 as a 501 (c)-3 non-for-profit foundation with a mission to: “Aid in the prevention of slips, trips, and falls through education, research, and standards development” and for the past 25 years has grown to be the international leader in walkway safety. Many people know of the NFSI through the publication of their B101 walkway safety standards. Although the B101 standards are written for a wide range of users, they are frequently used in the legal industry as a means of defining the standard of care in a slip or trip and fall lawsuit. The NFSI also offers manufacturers the opportunity to have their products independently tested and certified as High-Traction. Clinical studies have revealed that NFSI Certified products can reduce up to 90% of slip and fall claims. Lastly, the NFSI offers a wide range of classroom and online educational programs designed for risk managers, engineers, insurers, and safety professionals. One of the most popular courses is the Walkway Auditor Certificate Holder course, in which attendees earn the professional designation of a WACH.
What are some of the challenges that your non-profit organization “The National Floor Safety Institute” is up against?
Our primary challenge is controlling our growth. As a small organization, it is easy to get distracted and begin to commit to more projects than what can be managed. We are often asked to expand our range of services but in doing so comes with a cost which we attempt to balance. The NFSI does not accept government grants and has always been funded by way of donations and the sales of training courses and standards. A second challenge is one that comes from the flooring industry, which generally opposes walkway safety standards in support of the status quo and aggressively attacks the NFSI with a goal to stop our work. Given that walkways are the leading cause of most slips and fall accidents, it has always surprised me that flooring manufacturers are more concerned about protecting their profits over that of people.
As an expert witness in more than 800 slip, trip, and fall cases, please explain the typical process that you undertake when assessing a case for a personal injury attorney and some of the ways that you help injured persons and attorneys prove their cases.
Having been retained in over 1000 slip, trip, and fall lawsuits representing both Plaintiff's and Defendant's I have a very diverse view of the slip, trip, and fall problem. Many of the cases I have been retained in settled for millions of dollars but for those impacted by a serious fall they never really are the same and often die shortly after their suit was settled. It was my personal experience that led me to dedicate each of the NFSI B101 standards to a person who lost their life. As those of us who work in the legal industry know, most people do not like filing lawsuits but often times have no option given that they have very large legal expenses which the Defendant refuses to pay.
Sadly many in the general public believe otherwise and will demonize slip and fall lawsuits (and the attorneys who take such matters) as scammers looking to fleece small business owners and the insurance industry. According to insurance industry data, approximately 5-10% of all slip, trip, and fall lawsuits are considered fraudulent but if you were to ask the average person on the street what the percentage of slip and fall litigation is fraudulent they would believe the opposite. The reason this is true is due to decades-long misinformation on the part of the media to label slip and fall victims as criminals. We have all seen the news story showing a person pouring water onto the floor of a local grocery store, then lying in the puddle to stage a fall. For every caught-on-camera moment like that, there are nine legitimate slip and fall events that occurred but are rarely televised. This form of propaganda has been very effective in convincing future jurors that slip and falls are not a legitimate form of injury and those who file such lawsuits should not receive compensation.
As far as how I go about assessing a case, I want to hear the whole story from beginning to the end and then through discovery documents put together the pieces of the puzzle to see if the facts support the event. Most of the time the data is supportive but sometimes the puzzle pieces simply don't go together very well which I will then refuse to take the case. My job is to be an unbiased safety professional that looks at each case based on its merit and the facts in evidence. In some cases, some of the facts are unknown or contradicted by way of deposition testimony. A common example is the use of wet floor signs. Often the Plaintiff will testify that there were no wet signs posted while the Defendant claims there were. It is common for property owners to think that just because they posted a wet floor sign, they are not liable for a person's slip and fall event, which is false. We all have personal experiences with this issue. How many times have you entered a business's front entrance only to be surrounded by wet floors, only to find that the floor is dry? Many retailers will keep the wet floor signs out all day thereby making them a fixture and not a hazard warning whereby many people simply ignore them.
Are there any surprising facts about slip and fall cases or liability that is often unknown by the public?
Just because a person slips and falls does not mean that the property owner was negligent. This is often one of the hardest issues for victims to understand. I am not an advocate for Plaintiffs or Defendants but advocate for the prevention of slips, trips, and falls. I often tell property owners that if they don't want to be sued, make their floors safer! It's hard to be sued for a fall that did not happen. What's important to understand is that anyone can be a victim of a serious slip or trip event but until it happens to them most people often pay little attention.
The majority of slip and fall lawsuits never make it to trial and are settled beforehand but for those that do go to trial, the outcomes vary greatly. I have worked on cases where Plaintiff's received millions of dollars from a jury verdict while others received nothing. Slip and fall litigation always boils down to the Plaintiff alleging the presence of a dangerous condition which they had no warning of and a Defendant who blames the Plaintiff's shoes and their failure to simply not watch where they were walking. Sometimes the truth is somewhere in-between, which the courts have a remedy named "contributory negligence." It's not my job to act as a judge or juror, but rather an impartial expert.
Slip and fall accidents are a leading cause of preventable injury in the United States. Do you have any advice on how we can prevent such accidents from occurring?
Preventing most slip, trip, and fall events is fairly simple. For property owners, it begins with testing your floor's slip resistance to see if they are slippery. This sounds simple but most big-box retailers, who are plagued by slip and fall events rarely do such perhaps because they think that if they find that their floors are hazardous then they will have to do something about it which they prefer to ignore. After all, doing something costs money, and rarely do large retailers look to spend money on safety. Although it's counterintuitive and a bit cynical, it is my opinion that most big-box retailers would rather pay injury claims than make their floors safer. This business model has been used for decades and works as long as the business is able to pass the cost of claims and lawsuits along to their customers by way of the products and services they offer. I once heard it said that you can tell how big a particular grocery store's slip and fall costs are by looking at the price of the bananas they sell. Bananas are one of the leading items sold by volume and tagging an additional 5 to 10 cents per pound adds up quickly and does not get the attention of the consumer.
I know it's been said a lot but it's true: slip and fall prevention begins at the top. Company executives need to take the subject seriously and put into action sound walkway safety policies and procedures beginning at their front door. One of the leading causes of trip and fall events is that of a person tripping over the edge of an entranceway carpet mat. Floor mats are a very effective way for a property owner to remove and contain incoming soil and moisture but are prone to movement, edge curl, and flipping over, each of which can lead to a potential trip and fall event. The property owner has two choices. The first requires their staff to perform frequent inspections of their floor mats to ensure they are in the place and laying flat. If they can't do so, remove the mats and install permanent walk of carpet tiles in their entranceway. Once installed walk of carpet tile is a permanent solution that eliminates the use of floor mats and wet floor signs in the entranceway.
Lastly, what gives you the greatest satisfaction in your work?
What makes my work as an expert witness and as the founder of the NFSI most rewarding is the change that I have created. If it wasn't for the NFSI and their arduous work in this field, the world would be very different. Prior to the development of the NFSI B101 standards, Plaintiffs were often at a disadvantage. The charge that a Defendant failed to comply with the standard of care was hard to prove, given that there were no walkway safety standards to be used as a basis. This was also true for Defendants who had no way to prove that their floors were slip-resistant. Today the playing field has been leveled whereby both Plaintiffs and Defendants have a clear set of standards designed to benefit each of them. I take great satisfaction in knowing that my work in the field of walkway safety has prevented an untold number of injuries and saved the lives of people around the world.