Premises Liability: Safety And The Law

Doug Mann

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Table of Contents
  1. It Starts With Negligence
  2. Elements of Premises Liability
  3. Who Can Sue For A Premises Liability Accident?
  4. Exceptions to the Premises Liability Rules
  5. Premises Liability Lawsuits

We’ve all slipped or tripped and fallen before. Sometimes we miss a step or maybe we’re distracted or just not that coordinated in the first place – it happens. But what if you’re walking into your favorite restaurant and slip on a huge patch of black ice at the front door? It’s not your fault, but you’re stuck with a broken leg and all the associated costs. What are your rights when you’re injured because of unsafe property conditions?

It Starts With Negligence

In general, a person or company that injures you is liable for your medical expenses and the other costs of the injury. If someone runs a red light and crashes into your car, for example, they have to pay for your care and the damage to your vehicle and other property. It doesn’t have to be a direct action, either. If a company sells you a drug without adequately testing its safety or warning you about the risks, that company is liable for your injuries, too.

These types of cases are generally based on a legal principle called “negligence.” Negligence means that the other party failed to use reasonable care and that failure caused your injuries. By law, we have a duty to use reasonable care to avoid hurting other people. The standard isn’t about what the person or company actually thought was reasonable, but about what is objectively reasonable. Essentially, the court imagines a hypothetical reasonable person and how they would behave in the situation.

So, what does this have to do with our slip and fall hypothetical with the ice at the restaurant? Property owners, like drugmakers and drivers, and toy manufacturers, have a duty to use reasonable care to prevent injuries on their property. That means keeping the premises in a reasonably safe condition. If the owner fails to meet that duty, any injuries that occur may give rise to “premises liability.”

Elements of Premises Liability

Not every accident gives rise to premises liability. First, you’ll need to prove that the accident was actually the result of an unsafe condition. Common unsafe conditions include:

  • broken stairs
  • ice
  • wet or oily floors
  • broken floors, steps, or sidewalks

Next, you’ll need to show that the unsafe condition actually caused your injury. If you slip and fall on an undamaged part of the floor but there are unsafe conditions elsewhere on the property, that’s not enough. You have to slip and fall as a result of the unsafe condition.

Finally, you’ll need to show that the property owner was negligent. That means they knew or should have known about the conditions and failed to do anything about it. For example, an owner should know that there’s a huge patch of ice in front of the entrance or that one of the steps in the entryway is broken.

Who Can Sue For A Premises Liability Accident?

If you’re injured on private property, premises liability depends in part on why you were there. If you were invited, the owner faces liability for injuries caused by any unsafe conditions. Many slip and fall cases arise from injuries in public. If the property is open to the public, then the owner has a duty to everyone who might come onto the property. For example, shops and restaurants are open to the public, so the owner can be liable for the injuries of anyone who comes through the door. In our example above, you would be considered an “invitee” since the restaurant is open to the public.

If you’re on the property as a “licensee,” the landowner has different duties. A licensee is someone on the property for their own benefit – like a salesman. In that case, the property owner only has a duty to warn the licensee about dangers that the owner actually knows about.

Trespassers fall into a different category and the rules for premises liability and trespass vary from state to state. In Ohio, if someone trespasses on your property and you don’t know about it, you have no duty to them at all and you’re not liable for any injuries. If someone trespasses and you do know about it, you have a duty to warn them of any dangers you know about. You should also tell them to leave. Once you’ve warned them and asked them to leave, you’re no longer liable if they get hurt anyway. In Kentucky, on the other hand, courts will decide your obligation to trespassers on a case-by-case basis. If you reasonably expect that trespassers are going to be on your land, you may be required to put up signs or other signals to warn them of the danger. In Indiana, putting up gates and no-trespassing signs can protect a property owner from any liability.

Exceptions to the Premises Liability Rules

There are several factors that can affect your ability to get compensation after a slip and fall accident. The first is whether the accident was partially your fault. This is called “comparative negligence” and may affect how much compensation you can get. If a jury determines that you were 30% responsible for the accident, for example, you can only get 70% of the full cost of the injury. In our example above, perhaps it was a blizzard and you were dancing a jig in front of the restaurant when you fell – it’s a silly example, but the point is that a jury might decide that your injuries are partly your fault.

Finally, most states have different premises liability rules for children. In general, you have a higher duty to protect children even if they’re trespassers. Many states also have different rules for hunters or for recreational use of your property. If you own a ranch with a lake along one edge of the property, for example, you may have some liability for people that swim in that lake.

Premises Liability Lawsuits

If you slip and fall or are otherwise injured because of unsafe property conditions, you should consult an attorney immediately. You have a limited amount of time to file a lawsuit and get compensation for your injuries. An experienced attorney can help you determine how much compensation to claim and can negotiate your settlement with the insurance companies or, if necessary, go through with a full lawsuit.

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