A Property Owners Liability: Injuries on the Property and What Needs to be Proven
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
Have you ever been injured while on a public or private property? If so, you may find the following information valuable in determining your legal rights against the owner of the property where you were injured. As with all of our blog postings, the following information is only intended to provide general information and in no way guarantees liability or results in a liability case.
The owner¹ of real property is liable for failing to use ordinary care and skill in the management of his or her person and property to avoid injuring persons on or near it; the test is whether the owner acted as a reasonable person in view of the probability of injury to others. Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 C2d 108, 119, 70 CR 97.
What constitutes a reasonable person? The truth is that there is no universally accepted technical definition. However, Black’s Law Dictionary defines a reasonable person as a hypothetical person who exercises the degree of attention, knowledge, intelligence, and judgment that society requires of its members for protection of their own and of others’ interests. In other words, the reasonable person acts sensibly, does things without serious delay, and takes proper but not excessive precautions. An owner must maintain their property to avoid foreseeable injuries. Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 C2d 108, 119, 70 CR 97, 104; Fitch v. LeBeau (1969) 1 CA3d 320, 324, 81 CR 722.
For example, a store owner has a duty to keep the floors safe for patrons’ use, recognizing that their attention will be attracted by items on the shelves. Tuttle v Crawford (1936) 8 C2d 126, 130, 63 P2d 1128, 1130; Craddock v Kmart Corp. (2001) 89 CA4th 1300, 1306, 107 CR2d 881.
More broadly, an owner’s duty to use ordinary care may include a duty to make reasonable inspections of the premises to guard against possible dangers, to make the property reasonably safe for foreseeable users, and to warn of hidden dangers. Beauchamp v. Los Gatos Golf Course (1969) 273 CA2d 20, 27, 77 CR 914, 919.
In certain situations, an owner must act affirmatively to protect visitors² and employees from the wrongful conduct of other visitors. Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Ctr. (1993) 6 C4th 666, 674, 25 CR2d 137.
For example, a business premises owner has a duty to protect invitees from: (a) visitors negligent conduct that threatens their safety if the owner has reasonable cause to anticipate or foresee such negligence and the probability of resulting injury, and (b) the intentional conduct of visitors who are known to be on the premises.
As for an owner’s liability for criminal acts of a third party, the owner of a business or public premises has a duty to secure it against foreseeable criminal acts that are likely to occur in the absence of precautionary measures, even when the owner does not actually know of the particular assailant’s presence or criminal intent. Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Ctr. (1993) 6 C4th 666, 674, 25 CR2d 137.
Foreseeability is the key word in holding a landowner liable for criminal acts of a third party. Courts have been reluctant to conclude that the criminal acts of a third person were “foreseeable” absent circumstances, such as prior similar criminal acts. Even when criminal conduct is foreseeable, policy considerations and other factors may preclude imposing a duty, or a finding of breach of duty. Kentucky Fried Chicken v. Superior Court (1997) 14 C4th 814, 829, 59 CR2d 756.
Therefore, it is more difficult to hold an owner liable for criminal acts of third parties than their own negligence or unreasonable conduct.
In most circumstances, the case will turn on whether there is a dangerous condition on the property and whether the property owner is on notice of this condition. Notice can come in two forms: actual or constructive. You can find a more in depth discussion in a separate blog to come.
A visitor who has established that the property owner owed him or her a duty to protect against a dangerous condition, was on notice of this condition, and who establishes that the defendant breached that duty, must also establish that the defendant’s negligence was “an actual, legal cause” of the visitor’s injuries. Saelzer v. Advanced Group 400 (2001) 25 C4th 763, 766, 107 CR2d 617. The same showing of causation applies where an owner’s liability does not involve conduct of a third party.
In premises liability cases, cause is generally established through a showing that the harm suffered by the visitor was within the foreseeable consequences of the danger created as a result of the owner’s negligence.
The most obvious yet important factor in having a case against an owner of a real property is establishing that the visitor has in fact sustained damages. More commonly, in premises liability cases, the visitor has sustained damages to his or her person and/or property. A visitor’s recovery can expand to his or her mental and emotional distress damages.
The legislature and the courts have created several exceptions to the general rule that a property owner is liable for injury resulting from a failure to use ordinary care and skill. The same rules do not apply to furnishers of alcoholic beverages, firefighters, peace officers, and emergency medical personnel. Additionally, different rules apply for recreational users and trespassers on railroad locomotives and cars. These areas will be addressed in more detail in blogs to come.
If you wish for our office to consider taking your case or to offer legal advice, please contact our office to schedule an appointment by calling (925) 295-7348.