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Premises liability law determines who is responsible when someone has an accident on property other their own. Also known as slip and fall accidents, premises liability has to do with when conditions on the ground or in a building cause someone to slip and fall or have an accident in some way and get injured.
Personal injuries occur every day on public and private property as the result of dangerous conditions which could have been prevented. The largest retailer in the world – with over 3,000 stores and more than 100 million customers per week – Wal-Mart experiences approximately 1,000 customer injuries per day when customers slip and fall on water or are hit by fallen merchandise. (Steven P. Garmisa, “Premises Liability Law Expands as Retail Outlets Grow into ‘Big Boxes’,”Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, (October 31, 2002)). Pepperdine University reports that apartment and condominium complexes are among the most often sued entities.
Whether or not an injury was caused by a property owner’s negligence is generally determined by common sense. Before you can assess liability, you must determine the status of the injured party. In premise liability law, injured parties are generally put into one of three categories when determining liability.
Property owners owe the highest standard of care to those defined as “invitees,” or those parties who have been invited onto the premises. The best example of this would be a customer entering a store. This customer is an invitee who has been enticed into the store for the store owners benefit. In this regard, the store owner is under a duty to reasonably maintain and repair property to avoid slip and fall accidents. Legally, this is called the duty of reasonable care. If the store owner does this and the customer is injured none-the-less, there is no liability. On the flip side, if the store owner fell below this standard of care and failed to act reasonably, they would be liable for injuries sustained by the invitee.
The second category is called a “licensee”. This is someone who is allowed on the premises, but not necessarily invited. Sometimes this is a hard distinction to make, but a great example of a licensee is a party guest or a family member. They are allowed to be on the premises for purposes of a gathering, but not invited solely for the property owner’s benefit. The standard required for a property owner when dealing with licensees is lower because all the property owner must do is warn of dangers that the licensee cannot see for themselves. For example, let’s say a property owner utilizes an electric fence on a country property to keep livestock in a pasture. That property owner is simply under a duty to place a warning sign on the fence, nothing more. They are not under a duty to maintain or repair potentially dangerous conditions to their property.
The last category is that of the trespasser. In this instance, no duty is required other than intentional injury, such as setting a trap the sole purpose of which is to injure a trespasser. The one exception to intentional injury is self-defense. Another interesting exception is that of the child trespasser. The duty owed to a child is slightly higher than an adult. If the landowner has a danger condition (referred to as an attractive nuisance) on their property, one that might attract or lure a child, the landowner might be liable if the child is injured as a result. An example of this is an unfenced pool or pond, a grain silo, a well, an abandoned refrigerator or a tractor with keys in the ignition. These are all items that would attract a child, but also where a child might likely get very injured without supervision.
In 2001, a class reunion was held on Nevada County Fairgrounds at the same time as the Sacramento Valley Morgan Horse Club was holding a horse show. Rather than erect portable fencing, which was readily available, officers of the Horse Club used caution tape to mark the division between the two events. One of the horses spooked at the fluttering tape and charged into the crowd of reunion attendees. Eleven people were seriously injured and transported by ambulance to the hospital. A local Sacramento attorney was able to prove that dangerous conditions were caused by negligence, and the Sacramento jury awarded a total of over $900,000 to two plaintiffs.
An article published by Sacramento’s renowned McGeorge School of Law describes in detail the “revolution and counterrevolution” of premises liability in California. The article discusses how California led the way in expansion of tort liability in the 20th century but now California if moving in the opposite direction.
Property owners may be held liable in a variety of circumstances, but what if you’ve been injured on public property? It would be best to consult with an attorney who has expertise in navigating the laws around premises liability to analyze the circumstances and help you decide whether or not to pursue legal action. The law offices of Frank Penney are ready to help you.
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