I broke my leg! Should I pursue compensation?
September 28, 2008 6:43 AM   Subscribe

Personal injury filter: I broke my leg very badly--clean break of both tibia and fibula--while visiting my brother's apartment building in Brooklyn NY. I required surgery and a 5-day hospital stay. I will require months of PT and further ortho visits. I don't know yet if I'll lose any time from work beyond the week I was in the hospital, because my job is understanding and will let me work from home for at least a while. I cannot drive for at least a month, so I'm dependent on the kindness of my friends to bring me things, and as I live in a 3-story walkup (in Baltimore), I won't be going anywhere for a while. My question is about whether I should try to have the apartment building owner(s) contribute money toward what I expect to be quite a high amount. I'm not looking for damages--just for whatever my insurance won't cover.

More details: I know that YANAL and YANML. I'm a 39 year-old woman, if that matters. My brother lives in a building where each apartment is owned; I'm not sure if they're condos or a co-op building. I fell on the stairs in the common area. I can't say for sure if I tripped or what, but I was not being reckless. All I know is that I was carrying my suitcase (carry-on size), landed wrong on my right foot, tried to use my left leg to stabilize and avoid falling, but my left leg simply snapped in two. (Yes, ouch. Worst pain of my life.)

In the hospital I had to wait 2 days with my bones unset while the swelling lessened enough to have surgery, during which they inserted titanium rods and pins into my leg. I had quick PT to learn how to negotiate with crutches and my cast, but once the cast comes off and I get a removable boot--probably in a few weeks--I'm going to need several weeks of PT to learn how to bear weight on that leg again, and how to drive with the boot, and I don't know what else. I may start with a walker with the boot and progress to a cane. I'm told I should expect to feel pain for about 6 months.

I'm currently unable to stand up for more than about 15 minutes because of swelling inside the cast and pain, so in addition to all the other drudgery outlined above, my daily activities are severely limited even while I'm trapped at home. This affects things like cooking, hygiene, pet care, and whatnot.

My brother, who rents in the building where the accident occurred, is encouraging me to pursue compensation from the building owner(s). (He's planning on moving soon, but this would be his advice even if he were staying.) Several nurses in the hospital also encouraged me in this same direction, and so has my mom.

I'm normally one of those who's apt to say "Shit happens. Get over it. It was an accident. Don't sue." But I'm worried about incurring medical debt I cannot pay for, and my worries are compounded by a looming threat of layoffs at my financial services company.

Once upon a time I was an ass and had very bad credit, and I've worked long and hard to become more responsible and to restore my good name and a decent credit score, and I'm very worried about a downward spiral with collections agencies and huge credit card bills if I were to get a bill for, say, more than 5k. Which I'm quite sure I will. On top of all this, I'm getting a divorce, so I'm trying to minimize any and all bills as I start my new life and save enough to buy another house.

Provided that my health insurance company, who I just started with on 9/1, allows all the charges on the claims, I'll still owe 20% of the entire bill. I figure that with some denied charges, I'll probably owe closer to 30-35% of the total.

If you're still reading after all that, thank you! My question is not necessarily "Should I sue?" but rather "Should I pursue compensation for the costs I'm sure I won't be able to afford?"
posted by ImproviseOrDie to Human Relations (29 answers total)
 
if you didn't fall as a result of negligence on the building's part (slippery stairs, no lighting, etc), why should they have to give you any money?
posted by lia at 6:52 AM on September 28, 2008 [6 favorites]


You've said nothing about whether the owners of the apartment building were at fault. You don't seem to believe they are at fault. Morally, it seems wrong to seek compensation from the apartment owners if you don't have a good-faith belief that they are at fault for your injury. Legally, your claim sounds dubious as a claim for negligence (you were carrying a suitcase down stairs and you're not sure what happened; generally you would need to show that the common areas were not maintained in safe condition, the stair was broken, the carpet was loose, etc., such that the owners' duty of reasonable care to you was violated). But that's for your lawyer to decide based on the law of that state.
posted by jayder at 6:54 AM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sorry to hear about your accident.

By all means, talk to a lawyer.

However, my personal opinion is that unless there's some obvious problem that needed to be addressed in the stairway, you shouldn't go after the building owner. The fact that you may not have the money to pay for everything shouldn't obligate them to contribute to your medical bills just because the accident happened on their property.
posted by MegoSteve at 6:56 AM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Many personal injury lawyers work on a contingency fee basis and will agree to pursue or decide not to pursue a case given their estimation of the likelihood of recovery. Unless the building owners are uncommonly risk-averse, they probably will not just offer to pay your medical bills. You also haven't pointed out here any reason why they would be liable for your injury - e.g., dangerous state of the staircase. My suggestion would be to find a lawyer that works on a contigency basis (doesn't get paid without a recovery, subject to some expenses) and run it by them in a conference to get a sense of whether you can hope to recover in any forum even if it isn't your preferred one.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:57 AM on September 28, 2008


> My question is not necessarily "Should I sue?" but rather "Should I pursue compensation for the costs I'm sure I won't be able to afford?"

If you have to restate your thesis to make it sound acceptable to your conscience, then it's unacceptable.
posted by k.geis at 7:02 AM on September 28, 2008 [5 favorites]


But I'm worried about incurring medical debt I cannot pay for, and my worries are compounded by a looming threat of layoffs at my financial services company.

I'm very worried about a downward spiral with collections agencies and huge credit card bills if I were to get a bill for, say, more than 5k. Which I'm quite sure I will. On top of all this, I'm getting a divorce, so I'm trying to minimize any and all bills as I start my new life and save enough to buy another house.

So, because you find yourself in these predicaments you want to sue the owner of a building because you were carrying a suitcase and slipped or tripped?

Several nurses in the hospital also encouraged me in this same direction,

As a nurse, I have no idea why nurses would be giving you legal advice, or talking about suing, on the job.

"Should I pursue compensation for the costs I'm sure I won't be able to afford?"

No. Not from your description. It sounds like the stairs were structurally sound. Shit does happen. This time it was your fault. Why would you pursue, or sue, a building's owner and potentially put him in financial distress (even if he was a billionaire, it would still be immoral) that you may find yourself in? Personally, I would not pursue this. You and your family may have different values.

Good luck with your leg.
posted by Fairchild at 7:04 AM on September 28, 2008


Nowhere have you asserted that this was the fault of the building in any way.

"Should I pursue compensation for the costs I'm sure I won't be able to afford?"

No. Accidents happen and this is what you save your money for (this is your rainy day) so you don't have to go after an innocent party if 20% of your costs aren't covered by insurance. It's called responsibility.
posted by meerkatty at 7:16 AM on September 28, 2008


Talk to someone who knows what they're talking about. As far as I understand, this is the kind of thing insurance is for. I once banged up my foot at a friend's house. I didn't realize how badly till (much) later, but her parents (ie the people who owned the house and paid for the policy) were a bit upset that I *didn't* tell them about it because they could have claimed it from their insurance and helped me with the costs.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:18 AM on September 28, 2008


I am not a building manager, but is this something that the building insurance would kick in for? I am completely unsure about this. It would be good to ask a lawyer. I don't agree with suing them, but insurance might work out for this.
posted by kellyblah at 7:23 AM on September 28, 2008


No, it doesn't sound like you should pursue compensation from the building owner. Unless you left out something about it being his fault for not maintaining the building, you have no reason to go after him.

That being said, don't fret about the hospital bill too much. Hospitals are pretty good about working out a payment plan. I'm still paying off the huge bill from my son's delivery. That won't erase your problems, but it might make things easier.

Good luck.
posted by christinetheslp at 7:38 AM on September 28, 2008


Maybe the stairs are badly lit. Maybe lights were not working properly. Maybe the people who clean the stairs made a mistake, left something there -- just a small pool of water? Hard to see a small pool of water if it's not well lit. And you did indeed slip, you cannot say for sure there wasn't anything wrong with the stairs because you were in such terrible pain.

Do talk to a lawyer, I'm sure she or he can figure something out better than we can. Have your brother take a lot of photos of that staircase, with a wide angle. Pictures of all light sources there, natural and/or artificial. Maybe a neighbor has small kids? Toys? Small toys left somewhere? Pizza delivery guy dropped a pool of grease there doing a delivery?

The building must have insurance, by the way.
posted by matteo at 7:54 AM on September 28, 2008


Yes, you should seek compensation and you have several options. You should also expect a phone call or letter from your insurance company asking for additional details about your accident. They are going to ask who, what, when, where and why, so that they can determine whether they can recover their costs from whoever is responsible for the accident.

With this in mind, you can call the building owner to gauge their reaction to a request for help or assistance. If they have insurance, they will likely file a claim and let the insurance company deal with it. If so, you should speak to a lawyer.

Apart from the potential liability issues that matteo mentioned, you never assert that the stairs were structurally sound. Even if they were, design defects may have also contributed to (or caused) your fall. A myriad of code requirements specify that stairs must be certain heights, widths, and depths. These codes are developed to protect the public. Deviations from these requirements often lead to falls because your foot doesn't land where you expect it to. For this reason, many people who fall never know why unless they suffer significant injuries and further investigation is made into the cause.

The whole point of liability insurance is to spread the risk of accidents across a large number of people. If the stairs contributed to, or caused, your fall, the insurance is there to pay your bills and to compensate you for your injuries. And if there is a problem, your efforts should uncover it and, hopefully, cause the building to fix it it so others don't fall in the future. If there isn't a problem, then a good attorney will find out and tell you this--typically with very little, if any, out-of-pocket cost. If you don't want to deal with an attorney, find a friend who is an architect or code inspector to look at the stairs (or pictures and measurements of the area).

Good luck with your recovery.
posted by ajr at 7:58 AM on September 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


I won't be going anywhere for a while. My question is about whether I should try to have the apartment building owner(s) contribute money toward what I expect to be quite a high amount. I'm not looking for damages

Just a point: that's what damages are. Or one category, anyway.
posted by dilettante at 8:31 AM on September 28, 2008


I cast my vote with the this-is-what-building-insurance-is-for crowd. Also:

(1) the facts could be in your favor
Although the facts may not be in your favor, who knows? Maybe you're overlooking an important fact that only a lawyer would realize is important, or an investigation could find something.

(2) the facts don't matter
No building owner--and many lawyers--really want to take something all the way to court. If you send them a letter talking about suing they'll offer to settle. It sounds like you want a fairly modest amount -- your out-of-pocket medical costs covered. Maybe you'll get that in settlement negotiations.

(3) you shouldn't be doing any of this
You should rely on a lawyer to pursue this. You said you wanted to ask for money or something, but remember: as soon as you get money from the building owner, the building owner can claim that you've waived all your rights to sue.

So I'd talk to a lawyer, see if he'll draft a letter saying that you'd love to work this out in settlement negotiations that will benefit both parties, and see what happens.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 9:28 AM on September 28, 2008


IANAL Many health insurance companies have entire departments for just this sort of incident. In there eyes the real damages are to their bottom line. You may have an "equitable recovery" clause in your contract so that any money recovered goes toward the money they paid already.
posted by Megafly at 9:31 AM on September 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


As far as you (and the metafilter moral police) know there have been several accidents on those stairs because they're uneven/poorly lit/whatever.

For me, the deciding factor in whether or not to pursue this would be the amount of money you end up owing.

Does your insurance have a maximum out-of-pocket limit? Meaning, is there an amount after which you are 100% covered? If it's $2,000 that's all you'll have to pay.

A lawyer, even on contingency, will take a good percentage of your settlement/verdict, say 30% plus expenses. You'd end saving about $1,200, at best.

If you end up with a bill for $10,000, you might be able to save $6,000.

Of course, you have to go through a lot of hassle to get there if you use a lawyer.

In the meantime, relax about your credit score--negotiate a payment plan with the doctors and hospitals and send a little bit every month. They have always been reasonable with me and allowed smaller payments (say, $50 a month).

Best of luck.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:43 AM on September 28, 2008


If you do pursue the matter it will be handled by the building's insurance company. I used to work for a property insurance company, and we got stuff like this a LOT. It's handled on a liability basis, meaning that there needs to be some deficiency in the stairs in order for them to determine that they're at fault and that you deserve some money. Practically speaking, the adjusters would often settle and offer claimants (especially claimants with lawyers) some money so that it didn't go to court. But the money was often much less than what they were asking, and then you have to remember that the attorney takes a big chunk of it. So if you do go this route, and if that building's insurance company was anything like the one I worked at, you very well might get some money, but it probably won't be as much as you're asking and it'll be months and months after the fact.

And as to the question of should you...my personal opinion is that if you have no indication that it was anything other than an absolute accident (which is what it sounds like from your description), then it's not right to file a claim, since a claim basically states that it's the building's fault you tripped. Just because it's from an insurance company doesn't make it "free money" for anyone. But of course it's a matter for your conscience to decide.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 9:51 AM on September 28, 2008


Does your insurance have a maximum out-of-pocket limit? Meaning, is there an amount after which you are 100% covered? If it's $2,000 that's all you'll have to pay.

Ditto this as something you could look into to ease your mind.
posted by salvia at 10:13 AM on September 28, 2008


Thanks for all the thoughtful answers, even the ones telling me to suck it up. At the very least I'll be researching my own health insurance's yearly out of pocket cap to see how much damage I may be in for.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 10:26 AM on September 28, 2008


A lawyer, even on contingency, will take a good percentage of your settlement/verdict, say 30% plus expenses. You'd end saving about $1,200, at best.

When my boyfriend had medical expenses from a car accident he got a lawyer to go after the money for him. In addition to getting the money, the lawyer also negotiated with the health care providers to get them to agree to a percentage of the settlement. Even though the providers got paid less than the full amount of the bills, my boyfriend didn't have to pay anything out of pocket. It's a slightly different situation because it was a car accident in a no-fault state so his medical insurance didn't cover any of it, but I would think that this is a common thing with personal-injury attorneys.

I totally agree that you have to figure out just how much you might end up owing in this case and decided if it's worth the effort to pursue something.
posted by cabingirl at 10:42 AM on September 28, 2008


No one has told you to suck it up.

What many people have told you is that the question "Does the building owe me money based on the fact that I fell down the stairs there?" and the question "Can I afford to pay the medical bills stemming from that fall?" are totally unrelated questions. If the answer to the second one turns out to be No, that doesn't make the answer to the first one Yes.
posted by decathecting at 11:16 AM on September 28, 2008 [6 favorites]


How about contacting the owner/owners of the building and letting them know what happened? Maybe I missed it, but you may want to let them know. They may even offer to help you out, without you having to sue. If they don't know, they can't make a gesture of good will.
posted by 6:1 at 12:55 PM on September 28, 2008


If it was your fault and there were no structural or circumstantial defects, you are kind of an asshole for going after a cooperative building (or condos -- same thing for this instance). It isn't like the building is owned by some giant corporation -- it is owned by people who have to cover the insurance premiums or other payments with money they may not have. Of course I'm biased: I live in a condo in Brooklyn and I'd be pissed if I had to pay an assessment because somone fell down the stairs of their own accord and then played it off on the building cause they figured maybe they could. I'd say that's worth thinking about. Maybe the building owners just payed off their last credit card and don't want to be in debt cause you are a klutz.
posted by dame at 1:50 PM on September 28, 2008


> you can call the building owner to gauge their reaction to a request for help or assistance.

Talk to the lawyer way first, because if you do the above, you'll most likely say something that will be used against you if you proceed legally.
posted by Listener at 2:04 PM on September 28, 2008


If the answer to the second one turns out to be No, that doesn't make the answer to the first one Yes.

I disagree. There are plenty of people who are generally willing to take complete responsibility for situations, whether it's really theirs to take, as long as the expense is within the range they find acceptable for "life lessons." Looking into whether litigation is an option based solely on the fact that the outcome was very expensive is a responsible thing to do, especially if a person knows that they're the type that would normally never make a fuss.

In the middle of a situation, we're very bad judges of culpability. I was hit by a car while on my bicycle many years ago, even though I had the right of way. Because I was in shock, I dismissed the driver (against his protestations, to his credit) without getting any info from him, completely unaware of my injuries or the damage to my bicycle. My instant reaction to a disaster was to avoid making waves. It's only later on once you realize how expensive adhering to that philosophy can be that you begin to accept that responsibility exists in shades of grey, and that it's okay to usher others toward their share of it. And yes, a lawyer is the one who can help you do that.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 3:57 PM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Your insurance company will probably ask you how the accident happened.

I was injured on a roller coaster at Sea World. It wasn't really something that Sea World did, I just am, apparently, not suited for roller coasters. My medical insurance company sent me a letter about a month after the incident to call them to tell them the details of the accident and who was at fault. I wasn't interested in going after Sea World (though I probably could have), so I didn't make a point of blaming them when talking to the claims people.

Point is, you may not have to pursue anything for this to happen. Also, you would most likely not be risking putting the building owner into personal disaster by asking for costs. There is such a thing called liability insurance for this, and it's even a part of renters policies.

I'm not saying you are entitled to anything, but just some things to keep in mind.
posted by fructose at 7:42 PM on September 28, 2008


I broke my femur a few years back, and certainly know what you mean when you mention "worst pain of your life." My treatment and recovery plan was much like yours sounds. I have no idea what you can afford, but my out-of-pocket costs were not nearly as bad as I feared. When you break a leg, it's very cut-and-dried. Surgery with anesthesia is not exactly experimental treatment for a broken leg -- these are not the type of claims that insurance companies tend to deny. My insurance covered 90%; my total cost for an ambulance ride, 4 days in the hospital, the surgery, x-rays, ER visit, quite a large amount of morphine, some rather powerful painkilling pills, anti-coagulant shots to prevent blood clots, follow up visits and physical therapy was approximately $1,300. This is in a very big city where hospital costs where everything tends to be expensive, including doctors. Anyway, I mention it because it was quite a bit less than I was expecting, given all the horror stories you read in the news.
posted by centerweight at 10:16 PM on September 28, 2008


This discussion of Compensation Claims resulting from an Accident on Someone Else’s Property is from a U.K. law firm (so not directly applicable to your situation in NY) but still worth a read.

Here is a somewhat similar page from the American Bar Association.
posted by flug at 10:17 PM on September 28, 2008


Thank you very much, centerweight, for putting my mind at ease with that info. I was in the hospital for 5 days, but otherwise my treatment has been the same so far.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 10:05 AM on September 29, 2008


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