Premises Liability

Premises liability occurs when a person is injured due to a dangerous condition that occurs on a piece of property or a structure or improvement located on a property. In a premises liability case, the owner of the property must have an awareness of the dangerous condition in order for the claim to be valid. Examples of this include, but are not limited to:

  • Negligently creating a dangerous condition on a property;
  • Negligently ignoring the failing condition of a property;
  • Negligently lacking proper inspection procedure that would have prevented the dangerous condition; and
  • Negligently failing to repair a known dangerous condition.

As you can surmise, negligence is key in a personal injury claim involving premises liability. Negligence requires the duty of care, breach of the duty of care, and causation. This article will explain to the concept of negligence in relation to a premises liability personal injury case.

As is the case with the majority of negligence claims, the unique circumstances surrounding a specific premises liability claim are of particular importance and will significantly affect how the case is viewed from a legal standpoint. First, let’s discuss the elements central to the concept of negligence.

The Owner or Operator’s Duty of Care

An owner or operator of a property is any individual or business entity that could be held liable in a premises liability case. This includes anyone who may own, possess, or retain control over a premises. The control over the property within the concept of premises liability is crucial. For instance, if a store owner leases their store property from a landlord, the store owner has the control over the store’s premises. If an injury occurs on the premises due to a dangerous situation that the owner knew about, a valid premises liability claim could be brought against the store owner, because they have control over the property, even if they do not own it.

The owner or operator of a property has an enormous responsibility to be aware of any potentially harmful conditions or situations on their property. This is called the duty of care. Any potentially harmful or dangerous situation that results in injury to a visitor to their property is considered negligence, provided that it could have been reasonably avoided. In regards to premises liability, the owner or operator must exhibit reasonable care in order to discover, repair, or warn against a potentially dangerous situation on the property. In doing so, one can be reasonably assured that the owner or operator can prevent injuries to the visitors of his or her property.

The line of responsibility is blurred, though, in determining what constitutes “reasonable care”. To what extent must an owner/operator go in inspecting the property so as not to be held liable for the failure to warn a visitor of a dangerous condition? Should the owner/operator be required to repair any and all potentially dangerous conditions, or does the victim also have a responsibility to reasonably avoid a potentially dangerous or harmful condition on the property?

There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to the answers to these questions. California law does not have an objective measure by which one can precisely assess how reasonable an owner/operator’s actions are (or are not). These matters are largely subjective, and because of that subjectivity, an experienced attorney is your first line of defense. Your attorney will be able to differentiate the relevant factors within your unique situation, allowing him or her to create a strong case in your favor.

Even though much of this assessment of the owner/operator’s exercise of care is subjective, there are some guidelines in place. California Civil Jury Instruction 1001 outlines many of these guidelines, but the list is not exhaustive. These guidelines include things such as:

  • Location of property in question;
  • Did the visitor who was injured utilize the property for it’s intended purpose?;
  • The level of dangerousness of the condition that existed;
  • How likely was it that a visitor to the property would be injured?

Breach of the Duty of Care

Once the owner/operator has been identified and duty of care has been shown, the injured party must show that the owner/operator breached that duty of care. In essence, the question asked must be: Did the owner/operator deal with a dangerous condition negligently?

While an owner/operator may intend to repair a potentially dangerous situation on their property, if they do so negligently, under premises liability law they may still be held responsible for the visitor’s injuries.

The Causation Concept

To prove causation, the owner/operator’s negligence must have been the primary cause of the injuries the visitor sustained. For example, if the potentially dangerous condition would have been obvious to a reasonable person, the victim can not claim that the owner/operator is at fault for their injuries.

California law supports comparative fault, which means that even if the owner/operator is at fault, the victim may also be partially at fault. So the fault of each party is determined by the court and is represented as a percentage of total fault. If the victim was partially at fault for their injuries, their damages will be reduced by the percentage of their fault, as determined by the court.

Third-Party Interference

Generally speaking, the owner/operator can not be held responsible for a third-party’s role in an injury on the owner/operator’s premises. In California, though, the owner/operator is responsible for failing to reasonably control any negative third-party behavior that can be expected given their knowledge of the history of the location and nature of the premises. For instance, if the owner/operator’s premises is within a known high crime area, the owner/operator can take certain measures to secure the safety of their visitors by hiring guards, modifying access to the premises, and installing security cameras and lighting. Failure to do so would constitute negligence under premises liability laws.

Public Property

As with any California personal injury cases, the government is often not liable if an injury happens on public property. Government Code section 835 states that the plaintiff must show one of two things:

  1. A public employee acted negligently (but within the scope of his or her employment) to create a dangerous situation; or
  2. The public entity was aware of the dangerous condition and had time to prevent the injuries.

This means that public entities have certain additional protections that make it much harder to bring a successful premises liability case against them.