The legal document that begins a lawsuit and lays out the plaintiff’s allegations against the defendant is, in most states, called the "Complaint." In this article, we'll take a section-by-section look at what a complaint might look like in a slip and fall case.
Identifying The Parties
All Complaints begin with an identification of the parties (i.e., the plaintiff and the defendant or defendants). Some states require that the Complaint contain the parties’ home or business address; others simply require that the parties be identified by name. However, if a party is a corporation or other business entity -- such as the owner of a store where the slip and fall occurred -- the Complaint will customarily identify the corporation’s state of incorporation and allege that the corporation conducted business in the state in which the lawsuit is being filed.
General Factual Allegations
A slip and fall case involves a piece of property. The general factual allegations section will:
- identify the property
- contain the plaintiff’s allegations as to why he or she was on that property,
- state the plaintiff's belief as to who owned and controlled the property.
Because residential property can usually be easily identified by its street address, a Complaint in a residential slip and fall case will generally just state the property’s address. But commercial real estate cannot always be easily identified by its address, especially if the building is generally referred to by its name, like One Johnson Tower. In that case, the plaintiff’s lawyer will usually identify the property in several different ways, and may even use its city tax identification number. Even then, the parties may wrangle for some time over whether the plaintiff has properly identified the property.
The factual allegations will also usually contain a statement explaining why the plaintiff was on the property in question. In some states, the Complaint will simply say that the plaintiff was lawfully on the property. In others, the Complaint will go into more detail about how the plaintiff came to be on the property.
The factual allegations will then contain a series of statements alleging that the defendant(s) owned, operated, leased, and/or controlled that property. In order to get this part right, the plaintiff’s lawyer will usually have to review the property’s title (from the county Registry of Deeds) and tax information (from the city’s Tax Assessor’s Office) to figure out who owns the property. Once again, in commercial real estate, determining who own, operates, and controls a given piece of property can be very difficult, and the Complaint will not always get it right. In that case, the parties will argue about the property’s ownership during the pre-trial investigation period (called the discovery process).
Finally, the general factual allegations will contain a statement that the plaintiff was injured on the defendant’s property and that, as a result of the injury, the plaintiff suffered damages. Most states do not require absolute specificity in the Complaint, and lawyers vary in how specific their allegations are. Some states do not require the plaintiff to give any specifics about the accident and his/her damages, but other states require the plaintiff to explain precisely how he/she got hurt and exactly what his/her injury was.
Claims Of Liability
This part of the Complaint contains the plaintiff’s theories of liability (also called causes of action) that are set forth as separate “Counts.”
In more complex litigation, the plaintiff may have dozens of theories of liability (and thus dozens of Counts). But many slip and fall cases only have one theory of liability -- a claim for negligence. A claim fornegligence in a slip and fall case contains a formal claim that the defendant was somehow careless in his/her/its ownership and control of the property, and, as a proximate cause of that negligence, the plaintiff was injured.
Demand For Damages
The demand for damages is usually contained in the claim of liability, but can be separate. The contents of the demand for damages differ from state to state. In many states, the plaintiff is permitted (and required) to demand a specific amount of money. In some of those states, the plaintiff’s lawyer has to choose that number very carefully because that demand becomes the maximum amount of money that the plaintiff can receive at trial. In other states, that demand has little if any meaning; it does not affect the prosecution of the case at all.
Finally, in yet other states, the plaintiff is not allowed to demand a specific amount of money in a personal injury case. In Maine, for example, the plaintiff may only demand “an amount reasonable in the premises.”