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Vegas a hot spot to slip, fall, sue

Looks like Wheel of Fortune slots aren't the only potential jackpot in town.

A national insurance group has recorded steep gains in questionable slip-and-fall claims nationwide, and Las Vegas ranks among the biggest markets for such claims.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau, a group that investigates insurance fraud, said it's seen a 57 percent jump in the past 2½ years in the number of iffy slip-and-fall allegations insurance companies referred to the agency for further investigation. More than 4,600 questionable claims, most of them tied to commercial-insurance policies, came to the bureau in 2008, 2009 and the first half of 2010. Landing squarely in the top 5 cities for potential-fraud referrals? Las Vegas, which came in at No. 4, alongside New York, Los Angeles and other American cities with four to five times the local population.

The spike in claims is a serious problem with big implications, including increased coverage premiums, said Michael Geeser, president of the Nevada Insurance Council and a spokesman for travel club and insurance agency AAA Nevada.

Geeser blamed the recession for the nationwide jump in iffy slip-and-fall claims.

"In a depressed economy, people will go to no end to try to find money, and this has become one way for them to do it," Geeser said.

And no economy is more depressed than Las Vegas', noted Lew Brandon, a premises-liability defense attorney with local law firm Moran Brandon Bendavid Moran. Nevada has the country's highest jobless rate, and Las Vegas claims the biggest home-foreclosure rate. Such indicators give locals all the more financial reason to pursue slip-and-fall lawsuits, Brandon said.

And with liability lawsuits in areas such as construction-defect litigation drying up in recent years, a growing number of local trial attorneys have turned to new business in personal-injury cases, he said. Some of Brandon's clients have seen slip-and-fall claims against them double in the past two years.

Bolstering the economy argument: Plaintiffs push for money more quickly these days. A process that used to resolve in one to two years now brings "more of a push at the front end to move things faster," Brandon said.

But observers say the economy isn't the only factor pushing up slip-and-fall lawsuits.

For one thing, Las Vegas hosts more than 30 million visitors a year, and that constantly revolving temporary population means Las Vegas rivals, and even surpasses, most big cities in the sheer number of consumers visiting its businesses, Geeser said.

Plus, Las Vegas has always been a litigious city with more than its fair share of lawsuits of all kinds, said Jim Olson, president of local law firm Olson, Cannon, Gormley & Desruisseaux. Sure, the number of slip-and-fall lawsuits the firm defends has jumped in recent years, but not any more than other types of lawsuits, Olson said.

Yet, the city does draw an outsized number of such claims, Olson said, and he believes that's because the hotel-casino sector that dominates the local economy has a reputation for raking in the cash.

"People think the casinos can afford it," he said.

For local trial attorney Ed Bernstein, the insurance-crime bureau's report also traces back to local hotel-casinos, though for vastly different reasons.

Resorts here maintain a no-tolerance approach to personal-injury lawsuits that often lumps together genuine cases with less-serious ones, Bernstein said.

"This is one of the most difficult cities in the world to get a legitimate slip-and-fall claim without intense litigation," Bernstein said. "The hotel industry in Las Vegas has taken the position that they're going to be very tough in paying claims, because they don't want to be an easy target. A lot of legitimate claims do not get paid. People give up when they don't have the funds to fight back."

A kind of vacation effect might also spur higher-than-average numbers of slip-and-fall claims here, Bernstein said. Visitors often save for months or years for a trip to Las Vegas, and an injury or fall can ruin their holiday and leave them feeling stressed thousands of miles from home.

Finally, Bernstein said, a lot of consumers bring actions because they assume slip-and-fall claims inside businesses work like residential claims, where insurers often pay the injured person's medical bills regardless of fault. It doesn't work that way in public places: To succeed in a personal-injury claim against a company, you have to show negligence -- that the business failed to repair a tear in the carpet, for example, or that it installed improperly spaced concrete parking blocks or irregularly sized stairs.

Bernstein said the overwhelming majority of consumers claiming slip-and-fall injuries honestly hurt themselves, and it's "very rare" that someone would attempt to falsely sue for damages. He said he believes virtually all of the slip-and-fall calls into his office are for real. But he'll ultimately represent just 8 percent to 10 percent of those cases, either because the injuries involved aren't serious or because his investigation shows proving fault will be difficult. That small share of provable cases could lead insurance companies and their trade associations to label the remainder as "questionable."

"A typical case is, someone fell, but they don't know what they fell on," Bernstein said. "They want to get restitution from the hotel. Obviously, we don't take those cases. We have to actually see some sort of defect."

Olson acknowledged that attorneys such as Bernstein screen out the weakest slip-and-fall cases, but experts agreed businesses shouldn't rely on the legal system to protect them from potential liability abuse. Many slip-and-fall claimants never file lawsuits, instead going directly to a company's risk manager or owner to demand redress.

Olson advised businesses to set up a continuous-loop videotaping system, because companies that keep every area of their operation on camera often see slip-and-fall complaints "vanish." It could cost about $2,000 to buy a video system for a small business.

Bernstein advised business managers to be forthcoming following an incident. Hide security reports, and a company could find itself staring down a lawsuit simply because it's the only way a plaintiff's attorney thinks he'll get the true story.

Businesses should also review their insurance coverage to ensure it's adequate to cover slip-and-fall liabilities, Brandon recommended. Company owners or managers should walk their property regularly to find and fix potential hazards, and they must keep maintenance histories.

"We've had cases where people didn't have good records, and through the discovery process, the plaintiffs' attorneys found something that makes a case," Brandon said.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at
jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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