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Shining Some Light on Premises Liability

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Slip & Falls and Trip & Falls frequently involve slippery surfaces or uneven walkways, but often the most important factor in many premises liability cases is the lighting in the area of the incident.  Improper lighting can make a fundamentally safe and “up-to-code” walkway hazardous, while certain lighting can actually promote safe use of a stairway or deck.  The lighting in an area where an incident took place can be the determining aspect with regards to causation and liability.  Proper illumination is essential to any safe premises.

The expression “as different as day and night” could have been fashioned to describe premises liability claims.  A sun drenched, brightly marked parking lot by day , safe for all walkers of any age, can turn in to a minefield of hazards for pedestrians at night if it is improperly illuminated.  Brightly lit lobbies with clearly designated traffic areas and routes of egress suddenly become dim halls with obscured paths and ambiguous entrances and exits.

All lights were not created equal.  Just because an area is illuminated does not mean that it is properly or safely illuminated.  A quick walk down the light bulb aisle in your local home-improvement store will reveal the large variety of types and strengths of lighting available.  A working light bulb could be perfectly positioned in a hallway, but could be the determining cause of a claim because it is the wrong wattage, the wrong color or incorrect aperture.

How can you determine if an area where an incident occurred was properly illuminated?  Just like an engineer can determine the “slipperiness” of a surface by taking friction measurements, an engineer can also measure the illumination of an area.  Engineers use light meters to measure illuminance levels.  Detailed illuminance levels are specified in building codes and life safety codes.  These levels vary depending upon the construction’s function and location.  Stairwells typically require higher levels of illuminance than other areas in a building.  Routes of egress may have very specific standards they must meet.  Some buildings, such as movie theaters, may have exemptions because of how they are used.  Parking lots frequently are not covered by any specific code but there are standards that do apply and should be met.  Measuring average illuminance in an area is often not sufficient.  Just like a ramp, as a whole, may pass a friction test, there may be on portion of a ramp that is excessively slippery and does not pass the friction test.  The same concept applies to illuminance levels.  The overall illumination of an area may meet standards, but there may be points in that area that do not.  Gradients are also important in lighting design and must be measured – too much light can be a bad thing if the transition from dimly lit to brightly lit is too quick.

And, just like other features on a piece of property, lights and lighting levels must be properly maintained. Many codes/standards specify lighting levels in terms of maintained illuminance – this means that the presence of dirty bulbs/fixtures or obstructing features can result in improper lighting levels even if the original as-built design was code compliant. For this reason, it is important to measure lighting levels as close to the date of an accident as possible.

An engineer can be invaluable at measuring the illuminance levels in an area where a claim occurred.  They can sort through the myriad of building codes and standards to determine which would apply.
CED engineers have investigated hundreds of lighting related cases, providing extensive expertise in field investigation, consultation and expert testimony. Please call CED at 800.780.4221 or visit us online at

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