Premises liability is a broad term applying to a wide range of cases that arise from unsafe conditions on land. Most of the time you can look to the owner of the property as the primary defendant. But, premises liability can extend to anyone lawfully in possession of the property with a right to control the premises.
At the heart of any premises liability claim is notice. Property owners are only liable for dangerous conditions that the landowner knows about or should have known about. However, in many instances, proving notice is a difficult challenge. Oftentimes, proving notice is an even greater challenge than proving that the landowner was negligent in fixing the situation. Nevertheless, any premises liability claim begins with a landowner who knew or had reason to know of the risky condition.
What Must a Landowner Do To Avoid Liability?
In general, a landowner has three general options to avoid liability:
1) Correct the situation; e.g. clean up a spill, clear the sidewalk of ice.
2) Guard the area to prevent access to the dangerous condition; e.g. put up a barrier restricting access to the slick, recently mopped restroom floor until it dries.
3) Provide sufficient warnings to people who may approach the dangerous condition so that they can avoid the danger.
Relationship Between Victim and Landowner
Another key consideration is the standing of the injured party. Individuals who have been invited onto the premises, or whose presence is known to the landowner, are extended the greatest protections. Trespassers receive few protections from dangerous conditions. Again, the landowner must somehow know of a dangerous condition that people will encounter. However, even when a landowner is aware of a dangerous condition, he or she may not be aware that there is any reasonable likelihood that a trespasser will encounter the condition.
Common examples of Premises Liability cases
Dangerous physical conditions on the property are not the only type of lawsuit that falls under premises liability. The following are examples of cases that fall under the general heading of “Premises Liability”:
- Slip and Fall. Ice, a foreign substance on the floor, wet floors, spills, or a host of other slick conditions can give rise to such a case. The landowner of the property must have some notice of the dangerous condition, and some reasonable time to correct the situation. If, for example, a customer spills ketchup in the aisle at the grocery store, someone must notify the operator of the store before they are liable. However, the operator is allowed additional time to correct the spill if the spill just occurred.
- Dangerous obstacles or conditions. Imagine that someone has a large hole on their property, whether that hole was dug by the landowner or someone else. As before, the land owner must have sufficient time to recognize the presence of this dangerous condition. Once noticed, or in a situation where a condition has existed for so long that it should have been noticed, the landowner has a duty to correct the condition or take measures to warn unsuspecting others of its presence. Fill in the hole, cover it, or create some kind of fence to prevent folks from falling.
- Inadequate security. A drunken customer assaults another patron at a bar. Before the incident, bar management observed the drunken customer buying several alcoholic drinks. It was clear that the customer was drunk. In addition, the customer had become increasingly belligerent, and was threatening other patrons in the bar. If the bar management did not take measures to have the drunken customer removed from the premises or otherwise calm rising tempers, the injured patron may have a claim against the bar establishment for failing to protect him from a dangerous condition; a drunken, aggressive, belligerent other customer. Negligent security can also be proven in situations where a retail establishment has a long history of criminal activity and fails to undertake security measures to protect its customers from criminal activity on or about the premises, e.g. better lighting, uniformed security personnel, and security cameras.
The importance of expert witnesses in Premises Liability cases
Frequently, premises liability cases require retention of expert witnesses, such as when it is necessary to prove security measures fall below any reasonable standard of care. Even seemingly simple “slip and fall” cases can present formidable obstacles in proving notice. When there is substantial personal injury it can be beneficial to have damage experts around. It is important to make sure your attorney has experience in handling your specific type of premises liability case.