Volume 41, Issue 5 (September 1996)
The Application of Forensic Biomechanics to the Resolution of Unwitnessed Falling Accidents
Following a brief review of the biomechanics of walking and slipping, vis-à-vis, tripping and stumbling, the application of forensic methodology is demonstrated in an alleged slip and fall accident. The three types of missteps which lead to falls, viz., slips, trips and stumbles, are defined and clearly distinguished, not only by mode of initiation, but also by the termination step, i.e., the direction of fall, the landing distance from misstep initiation, the ground and body impact sites, the body's final position/orientation, and the nature and severity of the injuries. Such detailed information, rarely appreciated or volunteered by a plaintiff, must be painstakingly elicited or developed independently by scrupulous investigation. Further, it is important to determine whether a plaintiff's initial description of an accident to medical providers (EMS, ER nurse, and physician) is reasonably consistent with the litigation version, and also, our current understanding of the biomechanics of falling accidents. In this instance, an elderly female purportedly slipped and fell on a wet floor and sustained a severe neck injury which resulted in quadriplegia. The prima facie evidence produced by the victim's expert, a consulting engineer, was compelling, albeit simplistically limited to a comparison of the “wet” and “dry” static coefficient of friction of the subject floor with “Industry Standards.” The author's examination of other salient contributory factors provided a more defensible rationale with respect to the proximate cause of the plaintiff's falling accident. After reviewing the usual litigation documents and measurements of the subject floor's dimensions and slip resistance, the investigation focused on the plaintiff's footwear, medical records, and rather limited recall or awareness of actually slipping or even falling. The author concluded that the probability was extremely small that this partly witnessed “fall” was the product of a “slip” on a wet surface, especially when compared with established biomechanical models. Instead, it is suggested that the “fall” stemmed from either a trip/stumble or a “collapse”—the sequela of the “victim's” chronic, serious medical problems and recognized age-related locomotor deficiencies.