Liability of a Property Owner for Your Trip & Fall or Slip & Fall Accident

Pasadena - A ‘slip and fall’ or a ‘trip and fall’ accident is self explanatory–they occur when a person slips or trips and falls and suffers an injury on someone else’s property. The condition which causes the accident can be varied, ranging from liquid on the floor of a supermarket, merchandise left in the aisle of a department store, an uneven flooring surface or raised sidewalk slab, or even a stairway without a necessary handrail. Not surprisingly, the general belief of anyone who is injured when there has been a slipping or tripping accident is that the property owner is automatically responsible for the injuries that result. This is not always the case. These cases are generally referred to in the legal community as “premises liability” claims and over the years the law has developed in such a way so as to present substantial challenges to the injured plaintiff to impose responsibility (or legal “liability”) on the property owner for any damages or harms that result from the accident.

These premises liability cases generally involve accidents which occur on private property, commercial/business properties, or property owned and controlled by governmental entities. The challenges and procedures with respect to claims against governmental entities for dangerous conditions existing on public property are governed by different rules and procedures than claims against a private or commercial/business property owner. This article addresses specifically the legal and factual issues which are important to consider and address when pursing a premises liability claim against a private or commercial/business property owner.

A sign warning patrons of debris on the floor that might cause them to trip

The general rule of premises liability is set forth in Sprecher v. Adamson Companies (1980) 30 Cal.3d 358, which states that a landowner has a “duty to take affirmative action for the protection of individuals coming upon the land. This duty arises because ownership of land includes the right to control and manage the premises.” Id. at Pg. 368. The Court went on to note that the landowner’s mere possession with its right to control conditions on the premises is a sufficient basis for the imposition of an affirmative duty to act. Id. at Pg. 370. The right to control the premises lies at “the very heart of the ascription of tortuous responsibility and premises liability”. Id. at Pg. 369. In California, the Judicial Council has prepared relatively concise statements of the law which a judge is to read to a jury charged with the responsibility of deciding a particular case. There are different jury instructions for each different type of legal action. With respect to premises liability cases, the Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (“CACI”) 1001 sets forth the general standard that property owners must comply with, holding “a person who owns or controls property is negligent if he or she fails to use reasonable care to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition. A person who owns or controls property must use reasonable care to discover any unsafe conditions and to repair, replace, or give adequate warning of anything that could be reasonably expected to harm others.
A condition on the property created an unreasonable risk of harm.What this means in application to any particular ‘slip and fall’ or ‘trip and fall’ accident is that the injured plaintiff has the responsibility to prove certain things through the facts and any other evidence relating to that case. As noted above, Courts have recognized that property owners are not the ‘insurer’ of the safety of any person on the property, and must only be held to a standard of “reasonable care” in undertaking steps necessary to discover potentially dangerous conditions and to either repair the condition or to provide proper notice to persons who may foreseeably be injured as a result of the existence of the condition. As a result, in order to show that the property owner was negligent in the use or maintenance of the property, the plaintiff must prove:

  1. The property owner knew or through the exercise of reasonable care should have known about it.
  2. The property owner failed to repair the condition, protect against harm from the condition, or give adequate notice of the condition.

Property owners and their lawyers will always vigorously fight any premises liability claim on each and every one of the legal “prongs” or requirements set forth above. For example, in attacking the first prong (that the condition of the property created an unreasonable risk of harm), property owners will often claim that the flooring material is not “unreasonably dangerous” and is within the accepted standards of the applicable governmental regulatory bodies, even with a liquid on it, or will claim that any condition is “open and obvious” and should be seen and avoided by the injured plaintiff and therefore is not unreasonably dangerous. With respect to the second prong (that the property owner knew or should have known about the dangerous condition), property owners will claim that the plaintiff is unable to prove exactly how long the condition existed (produce or liquid on a grocery store floor, or merchandise in a department store aisle), and will therefore claim that neither the property owner nor the employees of the property owner had knowledge of the condition. With respect to the third prong (a failure to repair or protect against the condition), property owners will again claim that repair or warning is unnecessary given the fact that the condition was either not dangerous or was “open and obvious” and should have been avoided without the need for warnings.

 

In cases involving private property, the law perceives that the burden of inspecting one’s own property is almost always much less than inspecting a large commercial property. When dealing with accidents on private property, the injured Plaintiff usually will not be faced with these difficulties of proving “notice” of the condition. A dangerous condition on private property like an exposed sprinkler head or cracked walkway can and will be discovered by a reasonable property owner with very routine inspections of the property.
Lawyers experienced in handling premises liability claims are familiar with both the challenges and the tactics which have been successful in proving “notice” of a condition. As a result, when involved in an accident it is important to immediately contact an experienced lawyer who can then communicate with the commercial property owner to demand that any videotapes taken of the store premises at or about the time of the accident be preserved. Often security cameras which are utilized by the stores in hopes of providing evidence of fraudulent accidents can be utilized to show not only that the accident happened, but also how the dangerous substance or merchandise came to be present on the floor and how much time passed until the accident occurred. The surveillance videotapes can also show store employees in and around the area of the dangerous condition who should have seen and remedied the condition, but failed to do so. Along the same lines, discovery can be undertaken against the commercial property owner to determine the policies and procedures with respect to inspections and whether the store maintains “sweep sheets” to show when and how frequently store employees clean and inspect each aisle or area of the store. Unreasonably infrequent inspections can lead to the finding of “constructive notice”–the store should have discovered the dangerous condition if reasonable inspection procedures were followed.The biggest hurdle facing injured plaintiffs in premises liability cases against commercial property owners is establishing the “notice” or knowledge of the dangerous condition required to impose liability. Because many customers are continually walking up and down aisles and handling merchandise or produce, all an injured plaintiff can prove is that some material was on the floor which caused him or her to either slip or trip and fall. However, it often is difficult, if not impossible, to establish how long before the accident the material was on the floor to impose the necessary notice on the property owner.

California law has provided many protections to business and property owners, and has created many burdens for injured people to overcome in order to obtain fair compensation for the damages and harms which result from ‘slip and fall’ or ‘trip and fall’ accidents in California. Given these burdens, it is critically important for anyone injured in these premises liability accidents to contact a reputable and experienced lawyer with a track record of success who will know how to develop and present the case successfully to obtain a fair settlement or jury verdict.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jeffrey Beall, via the Creative Commons License