Steven A. Bagen | June 5, 2023 | Personal Injury
Premises liability is a personal injury claim that seeks to hold premises liability lawyers who own or control a property liable if they fail to discover and promptly mitigate hazards that injure guests.
Some of the most common premises liability accidents include:
- Slip and fall accidents. These accidents typically occur due to hazards such as cluttered walkways, broken sidewalks, liquid and debris on floors, potholes in parking lots, or damaged or poorly lit staircases.
- Swimming pool accidents. This type of accident commonly arises from unsupervised use of a residential, private, or commercial pool or malfunctioning swimming pool features, such as heaters, drains, or filters.
- Elevator and escalator accidents. Deaths or injuries to property visitors can be due to electrical issues or other apparatus malfunctions.
- Amusement park accidents. Amusement park owners are responsible for mitigating known hazards regarding rides and other potential hazards on the premises.
- Negligent security matters. This type of accident is the result of known crimes or criminal activity taking place on the premises.
- Dog bite liability. This is commonly covered by homeowners’ insurance policies, making it a premises liability issue for dog owners.
- Negligent security. If a nightclub, hotel, restaurant, or other business fails to properly light or supervise a property and someone harms you, you can hold the owner liable.
In premises liability claims, the claimant must prove that the defective property condition that resulted in the accident happened because of the property owner or controller’s negligence.
Here is a look at the elements of premises liability and the evidence that can prove premises liability.
The Three Elements of Premises Liability
Three elements must be proven to show a property owner or manager’s liability for the accident that injured you.
Those three elements include:
1. Ownership or Control of the Property
To seek compensation through a premises liability claim, you must be able to show that the individual or entity you’re filing the claim against owned, leased, or had control of the property in some manner. It should be noted that even a third party who was only temporarily in control of the property can be found liable in some instances.
For example, if a third-party cleaning company was cleaning a retail store where you were shopping and failed to place prominent warning signs after mopping or waxing the floor to let guests know that there was a risk, and you slipped and fell as a result of the cleaning company’s failure to warn you of the hazard, the claim would likely be filed against the cleaning company as they contractually had control of the environment inside the store to provide janitorial services.
In a rented residential dwelling, either the landlord or the tenant could be the source of liability for your accident, depending on the circumstances. If you suffered an injury due to a faulty staircase in the building or a pothole in an outside walkway where no warning signs were posted, the dwelling owner would likely be responsible, as they are required to mitigate hazards to guests on their own property.
However, if your accident was the result of tripping over clutter or debris that a tenant left on the floor when you were visiting them, liability for the expenses and impacts of your injury would likely fall on the tenant as they are tasked with keeping their rented home in a safe condition for guests.
The Evidence That Proves Control of the Property
To show that the at-fault party owned or controlled the property, you must obtain legal documentation such as a deed, title, mortgage, homeowners documentation, or a lease agreement. Other documentation that can prove ownership or control in some cases includes utility bills in the name of the at-fault party, a last will in testament that conveys ownership of the property to an individual or entity, or even a contract between the property’s owner and a third party that provides some control of the property to the third party for some time.
2. Negligence in the Use or Maintenance of the Property
Any type of property owner or manager is responsible for preventing hazards to guests, and that level of responsibility generally depends on the type of guest who is injured.
As explained by Forbes, the guests in a premises liability matter may include:
- Invitees: This guest is on the property for the purpose of doing business. For the owner of a retail store, an invitee would include both vendors delivering products to be sold at the store, or customers. In a residential setting, an invitee could be a plumber, housekeeper, or someone invited to the property to conduct business. Invitees are owed the highest duty of care, meaning property owners are required to take special precautions to protect those guests from injury, including frequent inspections of the premises to ensure that there are no visible hazards that could cause harm, promptly mitigating or repairing damaged property, and placing prominent warnings and/or barricades around known hazards.
- Licensees: This guest is invited to the property for the enrichment of the property owner, such as a social guest attending a wedding reception or staying at a friend’s home during vacation. While property owners or managers are not held to the same expectations as licensees as invitees, they are still required to mitigate known hazards.
- Trespassers: This guest enters the property without the owner’s knowledge or permission. Generally, property owners owe the lowest duty of care to trespassers. They are responsible only for not setting traps to intentionally lure the trespasser to the property for the sake of injuring them.
- Child trespassers: Most states require property owners to exercise a degree of care when dealing with children who are naturally curious and less aware of the need to ask permission before entering someone else’s property. Property owners and managers are typically prohibited from creating attractive nuisances such as unsecured swimming pools, abandoned vehicles, or appliances that would entice a child to enter the property and potentially suffer serious injuries.
The second element in proving a premises liability claim is to show negligence in using or maintaining the property.
The Type of Evidence That Proves Negligent Use or Maintenance
The evidence used to prove negligent use or maintenance of a property depends on the type of accident that was suffered. In slip-and-fall claims, evidence could include photos of the hazard that caused the injury and official accident reports from others who have also been injured due to the same hazard.
In negligent security cases, evidence could include:
- Crime statistics for the area where the incident occurred.
- Reports of the police responding to past incidents at the same address.
- A lack of surveillance cameras and other security measures at the site.
When someone is injured on an escalator, elevator, an amusement park ride, or in a public or private swimming pool, the type of evidence their lawyer and legal team will look for to prove liability can include service or inspection records showing whether the property owner complied with the required maintenance and inspection of the apparatus or feature.
3. The Injury Occurred Because of the Property Owner’s Negligence
The final element required to prove a premises liability claim is the connection between the claimant’s injury and the hazardous property feature. You must not only be able to show that if the property hazard had not existed your accident would not have occurred, but also that the property owner knew or had reason to know about the hazard, but failed to exercise a duty of care in promptly repairing or mitigating the issue before an injury occurred.
The Evidence That Connects the Injury to the Property Owner’s Negligence
Showing the property owner or manager knew about the hazard is often the trickiest part of proving a premises liability claim. For example, if you slipped and fell because there was water on the grocery store floor that had been spilled moments before you walked through it, you would have a hard time arguing that the property owner or manager had sufficient time to inspect the premises to discover the hazard and wipe the water from the floor before someone was injured.
However, suppose you slipped and fell due to water leaking from a faulty cooler. There was damage to the floor from a long-term leak or previous circumstances when a hazard sign was placed near the floor where water often collects. In that case, your attorney can likely find evidence—including witness testimony from other customers or employee reports about the malfunctioning cooler—that can prove your claim.
If you were injured due to a fire at a property caused by faulty wiring, you would first show evidence that the faulty wiring was likely the cause of the accident. You would then have to show evidence that the property owner knew the wiring was faulty and failed to replace it. This could include property disclosures in the documentation of the property’s purchase and any records of inspections performed on the property before it was rented to a commercial or residential tenant.
These are just a few examples of the types of evidence an experienced premises liability attorney would use to prove their client’s claim. Your legal team will look for the evidence that makes the most sense and provides accurate information for your case.
Are There Any Legal Defenses to a Premises Liability Claim?
Premises liability claims can result in expensive personal injury claims, particularly when they involve the negligence of a large company or governmental entity that resulted in an injury or death. According to insurer Travelers, the city of Chicago needed to pay one of the largest premises liability judgments in the U.S. after a gust of wind unhinged a 760-pound fiberglass shelter at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport, sending it to the ground and pinning a 24-year-old woman underneath. The case resulted in a $148 million verdict.
A defendant needed to pay an $82 million verdict in a Washington case after a man walked into a convenience store during a robbery. The robber violently attacked the man with a baseball bat. The man filed suit against the store, claiming that the company that owned the store failed to properly train their employees about robbery and violence prevention.
While most premises liability claims resolve through a settlement, many legal defenses can question a property owner or manager’s liability and limit the compensation the claimant receives for their claim.
The owner/manager’s knowledge of the hazard is one of the most common defenses, as you cannot hold them responsible for hazards they neither knew about nor had reason to know about.
Another common defense to premises liability is the “open and obvious” doctrine that generally states that the hazard in question was so obvious that the claimant should have known to avoid it. Often, the defense used in premises liability claims is to blame the claimant for the accident by saying they were wearing the wrong shoes or not watching where they were going.
An experienced accident injury attorney in Gainesville not only gathers the evidence needed to prove the three elements of your claim but also uses their legal understanding to refute the legal defenses that the at-fault property owner or manager and their manager use to defend themselves against the claim. Finally, they collect the documentation needed to prove the amount of compensation owed to the claimant for the expenses and psychological impacts of the injury they suffered.