Boyle's Wisconsin Safe-Place Law



Chapter One: Nature of Safe-Place Law

    (q) Causation
It must be established, as a condition to recovery, that a safe-place violation was the cause of the injuries sustained. However, "...when one owing a duty to make a place or an employment safe fails to do it and that accident occurs which performance of the duty was designed to prevent, then the law presumes that the damage resulted from -- was caused by the failure." [140] The presumption may be rebutted, but if not rebutted by evidence, the plaintiff has met his burden of proof. [141] So where an employee fell through an unguarded hole in a roof and safe-place duty would reasonably require an efficient railing around such hole to prevent persons from falling through it, injuries sustained were presumed to have been caused by the safe-place violation; [142] and where a frequenter fell when he stopped and turned around midway up a series of stairs and safety orders required that a handrail be placed in the vicinity of such fall, the absence of a handrail was presumed to have caused the injuries sustained; [143] and where plaintiff fell down steps when leaving a tavern and safety orders required that such steps have three inches of non-slip surface, the absence of such non-slip surface was presumed to have caused the fall. [144] But where it is "purely speculative" whether performance of the safe-place duty would have prevented the accident, the presumption does not stand. [145] Thus where plaintiff was descending stairs and tripped at a place where handrails were installed, it was held to be purely speculative whether handrails further down the stairway would have succeeded in breaking the plaintiffs fall, and such failure was not presumed to be causal. [146]

Causation does not have to be directly proven but can be established by reasonable inference from the evidence. [147]


Conversion Table Wis. 2d or Wis. to N.W. 2d or N.W.

140. Umnus v. Wis. Pub. Service Corp., 260 Wis. 433, 438 (1952). The court also quoted 38 Am. Jur., Negligence, p. 838, sec. 166 [439]: "If the very injury has happened which was intended to be prevented by the statute law, that injury must be considered as directly caused by the nonobservance of the law.", and the court held [439]: "In the instant case we consider that the plaintiffs burden of proof of causation was met when she showed to the jury's satisfaction defendant's duty to fence the opening in the roof, the failure to do so, and the entry of Umnus into the opening in a manner such as an efficient rail was designed to prevent." See also Van Pool v. Ind. Comm., 267 Wis. 292, 295 (1954); Candell v. Skaar, 3 Wis. 2d 544, 549 (1958): "Where there is a failure to fulfill a duty under the safe-place statute and an accident occurs which the performance of the duty was designed to prevent, the law presumes that the damage was caused by the failure." Ruplinger v. Theiler, 6 Wis. 2d 493, 495 (1959): "Where the accident took place at a spot which required a place to be made safe there is a presumption that lack of those safety measures was a cause of the accident or injury, as in Umnus v. Wisconsin Public Service Corp., supra . See also Kelenic v. Berndt, 185 Wis. 240 (1924) and Rudzinski v. Warner Theatres, 16 Wis. 2d 241 (1962). In Pfeifer v. Standard Gateway Theater, Inc., 259 Wis. 333 (1951), the court discusses circumstantial evidence of causation. Cossette v. Lepp, 38 Wis. 2d 392, 400 (1968); Erdman v. Frazin, 39 Wis. 2d 1, 4 (1968); Carr v. Amusement, Inc., 47 Wis. 2d 368, 372 (1970); Frederick v. Hotel Investments, Inc., 48 Wis. 2d 429, 434 (1970); Fondell v. Lucky Stores, Inc., 85 Wis. 2d 220, 230 (1978); RTE Corp. v. ILHR Department, 88 Wis. 2d 283, 289 (1979).

141. Umnus v. Wis. Pub. Service Corp., 260 Wis. 433, 438 (1952). See Candell v. Skaar, 3 Wis. 2d 544, 550 (1958): "... There is no evidence tending to show that the failure to provide a nonslippery surface was not also causal."; Lee v. Junkans, 18 Wis. 2d 56, 63 (1962); Cossette v. Lepp, 38 Wis. 2d 392, 400 (1968); Fondell v. Lucky Stores, Inc., 85 Wis. 2d 220, 231 (1978).

142. Umnus v. Wis. Pub. Service Corp., 260 Wis. 433 (1952).

143. Burling v. Schroeder Hotel Co., 235 Wis. 403 (1940).

144. Candell v. Skaar, 3 Wis. 2d 544 (1958). See also Rudzinski v. Warner Theatres, 16 Wis. 2d 241 (1962), where, after she fell, plaintiff merely noticed wet spots on the floor of a theater lobby in the vicinity of her fall.

145. Schoonmaker v. Kaltenbach, 236 Wis. 138, 142 (1940): "It is our conclusion that, assuming a railing to be required for the platform and lower three steps of the stairway, it is purely speculative whether this would have avoided the accident, and the conclusion of the jury that defendant's default caused injury to plaintiff cannot be sustained." See also Wm. Esser & Co. v. Ind. Comm., 191 Wis. 473 (1926); Brown v. Gaulke, 194 Wis. 537, 538 (1928): The order of the industrial commission merely requires a handrail on one side of the stairway, and therefore it can hardly be said that if the railing had been placed upon the south side of the stairway it would have effectively prevented plaintiff's fall."; Kezar v. Northern States Power Co., 246 Wis. 19, 22 (1944); Evans v. La Crosse Laundry & Cleaning Co., 251 Wis. 296, 301 (1947): "Since plaintiff lost her balance on a portion of the premises that was safe and as a result was precipitated over the alleged unsafe portions without coming into contact with them at all" causation was not presumed; Ruplinger v. Theiler, 6 Wis. 2d 493, 496 (1959): "But there is no such presumption where the accident or injury did not occur at the place where the defect existed or that safeguards or the elimination of the defect have any effect in preventing the accident or in their absence caused it."; Meyer v. Val-Lo-Will Farms, 14 Wis. 2d 616, 623 (1961): "... In view of their testimony as to their ability to see, it cannot be said that lack of light was a cause of the upset not error to refuse to inquire as to inadequate lighting."; and Allison v. Wm. Doerflinger Co., 208 Wis. 206 (1932). In Fries v. Lallier, 219 Wis. 388 (1935), it was shown that safety devices could not have prevented the injury; Merkley v. Schramm, 31 Wis. 2d 134, 141 (1966): the evidence supports a determination by the court that the accident or injury occurred at a point where the defective lighting did not exist."; Rewolinski v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co., 32 Wis. 2d 680 (1966) where night watchman went through window instead of door which could not be used because of defective lock, and Court held that defective lock did not cause injury sustained in going through window; Van Sluys v. ILHR Department, 38 Wis. 2d 419 (1968); Baker v. Bracker, 39 Wis. 2d 142, 146 (1968): there is no such presumption when the accident does not occur at the spot or place where the defect exists or when the presence of safeguards or the elimination of the defect would have had no effect in preventing the accident."; Carr v. Amusement, Inc., 47 Wis. 2d 368, 372 (1970).

146. Schoonmaker v. Kaltenbach, 236 Wis. 138 (1940). The court stated [141]: "We can discover nothing in the record to indicate that the absence of a handrail beyond the platform could have had anything to do with preventing his fall or breaking it."; But see Parchem v. St. Cecilia's Congregation, 28 Wis. 2d 227 (1965) where plaintiffs fall on steps occurred six or seven feet away from place where legal handrails should have been, but the Court found presumption of causation in fact that plaintiff obviously sought handrail support and would have begun her descent of steps at place of legal handrail had such been there.

147. Mennetti v. West Side Businessmen's Asso., 246 Wis. 586, 591 (1945): "... The circumstances of the accident reasonably raise the inference that the accident was caused by the platform beneath the leg of plaintiffs table giving way and a sinking of the floor." See also Mayhew v. Wisconsin Zinc Co., 158 Wis. 112 (1914); Kelenic v. Berndt, 185 Wis. 240 (1924); Umnus v. Wisconsin Public Service Corp., 260 Wis. 433, 438 (1952): It is not required that evidence be carried to the point of proof that a safety device would certainly have prevented the accident, and, conversely, that its absence certainly caused it."; Rudzinski v. Warner Theatres, 16 Wis. 2d 241 (1962); Anderson v. Joint School Dist., 24 Wis. 2d 580, 584 (1964): a jury could infer that the glass was not thick enough or strong enough and that, accordingly, the school district has not provided a door that was as safe or free from danger as the nature of the premises, including the door, would reasonably permit."; Cossette v. Lepp, 38 Wis. 2d 392, 400 (1968): "Given the testimony that [plaintiff] had tripped and fallen, the jury could reasonably infer that the presence of a suitable railing would have prevented the accident and that the absence of the railing was a substantial factor in causing the accident."


Revised October 20, 2001

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