Premises liability is the legal concept that encompasses what we commonly identify as “slip and fall” accidents or other injuries that occur on another person’s property due to a dangerous condition.
Property owners, landlords, tenants, and managers (hereinafter, collectively, “landowners” or “landlords”) have a responsibility to keep their properties free from hazards to ensure the safety of their visitors. The level of responsibility that a property owner has to guests is dependent on the nature of the relationship between the landowner and the visitor, and whether the location and purpose of the visitor’s presence is for business (commercial) or residential (personal) purposes.
Premises liability actions have a two year statute of limitations in California; that is, a person has two years from the date of their alleged injury to file a legal claim. This is a non-negotiable timeline, so if you have been injured on the property of another, it is critical to seek the advice of qualified legal counsel right away to preserve your legal rights or your claim may be forever barred.
Premises Liability Explained
The law broadly categorizes visitors on personal or commercial property as either licensees or invitees. Licensees are social guests, such as someone coming over to your home, whereas invitees are considered business guests or customers. Some of the main characteristics of the following include:
You are a licensee if you are invited to residential property for a social purpose only. You may also be considered a licensee if you are present on the property with the owner’s knowledge, but for your own purposes (such as if you were soliciting business). The landowner has a duty only to warn licensees of known dangerous conditions on the premises. The landowner has no heightened duty generally to inspect the property before licensees enter the premises, but rather, must only let them know of any potential hazards present on the property. They must also keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition.
Invitees are those that are permitted on the property typically for a business purpose. This is typical of businesses, restaurants, and other establishments generally available for public use and visitation. An invitee is usually present for the benefit of the landowner or for the benefit of both the landowner and visitor. The landlord is responsible for dangerous conditions that the landlord knows about or should know about upon reasonable inspection. This is a higher duty of care than that between landowners and licensees, as it requires continued diligence in ensuring that the premises is free from any unreasonably dangerous conditions.
The distinction between a licensee and an invitee is legally significant, but can be difficult to determine in certain circumstances. For example, if you were invited to a residence for a business purpose, you may still be considered an invitee; contractors are typically regarded as such, and therefore, even residential homeowners may be held to this higher standard of care even if they are not holding themselves open to the public for business purposes (which would usually make their visitors customers and, therefore, invitees). The determination of whether you were a licensee or an invitee when your injury occurred will dictate the standard of care that was owed to you by the landowner, and, therefore, is the forefront consideration in premises liability actions.
Another relationship that exists between landlords and visitors includes trespassers. A trespasser is someone that is on the property for their own interests, generally without the express consent of the landowner. Though trespassers have few legal rights since generally they are on the property unlawfully, this does not mean that a trespasser cannot have a successful legal action if there was a known dangerous condition on the property that should have been remedied. Trespassers create a unique legal situation for landowner because they are there without the owner’s permission, but may still suffer injury from being on the property, invited or not.
In order to successfully win a premises liability action, the plaintiff (the injured party) must prove:
- The landowner, property manager, landlord, tenant, occupant, etc. owed a legal duty to the injured party (typically, a duty to keep the premises reasonably safe and/or to warn of any known dangerous conditions on the property, as well as a duty to investigate the potential for dangerous conditions in a commercial setting)
- The landowner, property manager, landlord, tenant, occupant, etc. breached their legal duty to the injured party (typically by failing to keep the premises reasonably safe and/or to warn of any known dangerous conditions on the property, or failing to investigate the potential for dangerous conditions in a commercial setting)
- It was the landowner, property manager, landlord, tenant, or occupant actions (or inaction) that caused the injury.
- That the plaintiff suffered damages (injury, monetary loss) due to the breach of duty on behalf of the responsible party
Each of these elements must be proven by the plaintiff. The defendant does not need to disprove the elements to win, but rather, the burden falls squarely on the plaintiff to sufficiently satisfy a judge or jury that each and every one of these elements is met. Having an experienced plaintiff’s premises liability attorney on your side can ensure that these elements are effectively communicated to the judge or jury and that you have the best chance possible at success.
Common Questions Regarding Premises Liability Actions
One of the first things you will need to figure out in filing a personal injury claim against a property owner for a premises liability action is who should be held responsible. Is it the business owner? The property manager? The landlord, employee, tenant, or some other person that caused you harm? This is a preliminary, but difficult, question to answer.
What if the Wrongdoer is a Landlord or Manager, but Not the Owner?
Landlords, managers, and those that are in charge of the day-to-day operations of a business, for example, are generally considered agents of their place of employment. Agents are those that are carrying out duties at the direction of another within the scope of their employment. If an accident or injury was attributed specifically to one employee’s negligence (consider if a store employee failed to put a mop away and a customer tripped and fell over it), that person may be implicated as a responsible party, but more often, the wrongdoer is still considered the business entity that owns the property. This is typically the holder of the insurance policy that would pay out to an injured party.
What if the Wrongdoer is a Not a Landlord, but a Tenant?
A tenant may be held responsible for injuries sustained by visitors under California law. While a landlord or property manager is typically responsible for maintaining the structure, common areas, and outdoor areas, a tenant has responsibilities as well. If important safety features such as staircase railings, handles, or locks are broken, the tenant must report this to their landlord. Failure to fix these problems, once on notice, may shift the responsibility to the landlord, unless the tenant failed to report the problems if they knew about them. Moreover, a tenant has absolute responsibility to keep their rental unit free from debris and to inform guests of any known dangers on the premises. A tenant, for example, would need to warn a visitor of a hole in the floor or exposed wiring that may cause injury.
What if the Wrongdoer was Unaware of the Dangerous Condition on the Property?
Invitees have a duty to their guests, customers, and patrons to actively ensure that dangerous conditions do not exist on their property because they hold themselves out in such a way that they are generally open to the public. An landlord whose negligence causes injury to an invitee, even if they were unaware of the dangerous condition, may be held responsible. Those hosting licensees may even be liable to their visitors if they did not know of a dangerous condition, though these landowners have fewer obligations to keep the premises safe than those who hold themselves open for invitees.
What if the Accident was Partially My Fault?
First, fault and causation are to be determined by the court, so never admit fault in any type of accident, especially not on the record to an insurance company taking a statement. Of course, you should also always be truthful in these situations, so if you have concerns about your admissions, it is even more critical to seek the advice of an experienced premises liability attorney before making any possibly incriminating statements.
In California, even if you are found partially responsible for your accident, you may still recover much of the compensation you are entitled to. Your damages awards would simply be reduced by the amount you were deemed at fault. Partial negligence does not necessarily bar your claim in California.
San Diego Premises Liability and Slip and Fall Attorneys
Our experienced premises liability attorneys at Injury Trial Lawyers, APC can help you determine the viability of your legal claim, as well as who you should file an action against. If you have informed the wrongdoer of your injuries and been offered a settlement from their insurance company, do not make any statements or sign any documents until you have consulted with us. We have seen insurance companies take advantage of injured parties in vulnerable situations by offering them far less than their claim is worth.
At Injury Trial Lawyers, APC we will ensure that you are fairly compensated for the injuries you sustained due to another’s negligence and that you receive the compensation you deserve for your injuries. To learn more about your legal rights and options for filing a premises liability case in California, contact us at (619) 525-7007 today.