Updated on: 11/25/2019
The tragic death of a 19-year-old University of Washington student Wednesday after she slipped on a pathway on the UW campus and suffered a head injury has many asking questions about the school’s responsibility.
Seattle wrongful death attorney Chris Davis has examined the news reports regarding the case and has offered his opinion on various elements of the incident.
“There’s no question that the university can be held responsible,” Davis said. “It really comes down to whether (the university’s) actions or inaction were reasonable or not, and whether they took the appropriate precautions.”
The girl slipped in the area north of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building and east of Drumheller Fountain. According to the university, the general area where the victim slipped was treated with sand and salt before classes Wednesday, as were other major walkways. "Sidewalk closed” signs were spotted Wednesday afternoon in the area near where the student fell. University police told KIRO7 the signs were not there at the time of the fall and that the student did not slip and fall on a closed sidewalk.
Campus was closed Monday due to snow and Tuesday due to the icy conditions.
Davis has questions about how the University of Washington acted prior to the incident.
“If she was traveling on a walkway that the university knew was popular, frequented by students, and they failed to remove snow or ice like they have in the past, that would be a pretty strong case against the university,” said Davis, the founder of Davis Law Group. “Did the university have a protocol in place to remove snow and ice, and if so was it done in this case, or was it adequately done? If they went a couple days without following that protocol, that would make a stronger case against the university.”
Slip and fall injury claims are more common than one might think, usually occurring on private property, Davis said. This case is unique because the victim died — most slip and falls result in injuries — and it happened on a large, public campus. Davis said that the university has an obligation to keep its property reasonably safe for people that come onto the campus. That obligation doesn’t change in the face of snow and ice removal.
So what is considered “reasonably safe?”
“If a lawsuit was filed against the university, that’s a question for the jury,” Davis said. “It’s based on the facts of that particular case. If I’m representing the estate of this young girl, I would be looking to see if the university followed its own protocols for ice and snow removal, and if so, how adequate it was. Was the protocol adequate for this type of weather? Was it followed in this particular case? Was it deficient in some way?
Davis said he will oftentimes hire experts to help prove whether the defendant acted reasonably or not, or find out what they could’ve done or should’ve done to prevent the incident. Additionally, an experienced personal injury attorney will look at the university’s slip and fall history to see whether there is a pattern of negligent action on behalf of the school.
“How many slip and falls have there been on campus involving snow and ice removal?” said Davis, a Kirkland native and 1993 University of Washington graduate. “If there have been a lot, then that makes the existence of some specific protocol more important, and the fact that it should be followed more important. If you can show a long history of prior similar incidents, and they failed to follow their own protocol, that would be a really strong case against the university. It’s possible they knew about this danger, they didn’t follow their own procedures concerning this danger, they knew this type of injury or death could occur, and they didn’t do enough to prevent it.”
Many people have wondered whether there was any signage warning of the potential ice, and whether that would absolve the university of responsibility.
“Sometimes the signage doesn’t matter,” Davis said. “If a student has to get to a particular hall for class, and there’s only one way for that student to travel on campus, does it really matter if there’s signs up? The student has to get to class no matter what. If they’re just putting up signs without removing or doing what they can to remove or melt the ice, then I would argue that’s not enough.”