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Premises Liability: Everything You Need to Know

Premises liability is a relatively simple concept: landowners, lessors, and occupiers of land must keep their property safe and avoid causing harm to others. Premises liability lawsuits can arise from an array of circumstances including a slip and fall by an individual, a construction site accident, or an accident at occurs on a residential or commercial property. Under California law, everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property. California Civil Code 1714 (a).  When an individual is injured on a property, the person harmed generally brings a lawsuit based upon a theory of negligence.  Under this theory, an injured Plaintiff must prove the following:

  1. The defendant owned, leased, occupied, or controlled the property;
  2. The defendant was negligent in the use or maintenance of the property;
  3. The plaintiff was harmed; and
  4. The defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s harm.  

California Civil Jury Instructions 1000.  

When evaluating a negligence claim under the theory of premises liability, there are several key elements for both a Plaintiff and a Defendant to consider.  First, the landowner, occupier, or lessor of a premises is under a duty to exercise ordinary care in the use or maintenance of the premises to avoid exposing persons to an unreasonable risk of harm.  Rowland v. Christian, 69 Cal. 2d 108 (1968).  Essentially, a landowner or occupier is required to take steps to keep individuals on the property free from harm. 

Second, liability occurs when a person at the time of the negligent act or omission, should have reasonably foreseen that such act or omission could result in damage to another.  To establish the element of a breach of duty, a Plaintiff has the burden of proof of presenting competent evidence which demonstrates that a Defendant had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition sufficiently in advance of the accident which caused the injury, or that the particular dangerous condition existed for such a length of time that, if a Defendant had exercised reasonable care in inspecting the premises, a Defendant would have discovered the dangerous condition in time to remedy it or to give warning before the injury occurred. Oldenburg v. Sears, Roebuck & Co: (1957) 152 Cal.App.2d 733, 744.  For a landowner or occupier, it is good practice to regularly maintain the property, visually inspect, and remove any objects that may lead to injuries sustained by individuals on the property.  A landowner or occupier should also warn guests of any known dangerous conditions that may lead to harm. Typical examples of known dangerous conditions requiring a warning would be digging a hole in the backyard of a property to install a swimming pool or a wet floor in the bathroom of a commercial building. 

Third, causation requires that a Defendant’s negligent acts were a substantial factor in bringing about a Plaintiff’s injury or damage.  In order to establish liability, one must prove that the breach of a duty is a substantial factor in bringing about the injury, damage, loss or harm.  Mitchell v. Gonzales, 54 Cal. 3d 1041 (1991). As a landowner or occupier, it is critical to avoid leaving dangerous conditions on your property that may cause injury. Areas on a property that could be a substantial factor in causing injury may include overgrown weeds on a walkway to the entrance of a dwelling, broken or missing railings inside a dwelling, or pooling water on the floor of a property. If these conditions exist on a property, it is critical for a landowner or occupier to quickly address them or be at the risk of being found responsible for creating harm to an individual. 

Finally, damages must be pled and proved.  California Civil Code §§ 1714, 3333.  In a premises liability matter, a Plaintiff may seek both economic (medical expenses, property damage, and loss of income) and non-economic damages (pain and suffering).  In some rare cases, a Plaintiff may seek punitive damages intended to punish a landowner or occupier when there is an intentional act to cause harm or reckless conduct by a landowner or occupier.  In either case, a landowner or occupier should make reasonable efforts to avoid exposing individuals to harm on a property. Many individuals seek various types of insurance that can offset the financial costs associated with a premises liability lawsuit. Yet given the complexity of premises liability lawsuits, it is best to consult with an attorney prior to or following an injury occurring on a property to better understand your rights and responsibilities.