Premises liability law involves the legal responsibilities of property owners and occupiers to prevent injuries to persons on their property. One of the most common causes of such injuries is a trip or slip and fall, such as on an icy sidewalk, a loose or uneven stair tread, or a piece of debris or spilled liquid on the floor. Property owner liability varies depending on the rules and principles adopted in the jurisdiction where the injury occurred. An experienced personal injury lawyer at Law Offices of Michael P. Burakoff, P.A. in Morristown, New Jersey, can evaluate the strength of your premises liability claim and help you recover damages for lost wages, medical bills, and pain and suffering associated with your injury.
Premises liability: general principles
Some states’ premises liability laws focus on the status of the visitor to the property. In such states, the injured person is generally defined as an invitee, a licensee or a trespasser.
- Invitee – An invitee is someone who is expressly or impliedly invited onto the property of another. The owner owes the invitee the highest duty of care, which includes taking every reasonable precaution to ensure the invitee’s safety.
- Licensee – A licensee, by contrast, enters the property for his or her own purposes but is present at the consent of the owner. The owner is required to warn a licensee of hidden dangers, but is not necessarily required to fix them.
- Trespasser – A trespasser enters the property without any right to do so and without the consent of the property owner or occupier. In the case of adult trespassers, the owner generally has no duty of care and need not take reasonable care of his property or warn of hidden dangers. Even if a person was trespassing at the time of his or her injury, he or she may still be able to recover, however, if he or she can show that the owner knew it was likely that trespassers would enter the property. Children are owed a higher duty of care, regardless of whether they are considered trespassers. A landowner’s duty to warn of hazards is also heightened with respect to children.
In states where consideration is given to the condition of the property and the activities of the owner and visitor, a uniform standard of care is applied to both invitees and licensees. This uniform standard requires the exercise of reasonable care for the safety of visitors (other than trespassers). To satisfy the reasonableness standard owed to invitees and licensees, an owner has a continuing duty to inspect the property to identify dangerous conditions and either repair them or post warnings as appropriate.
Proving owners’ liability in premises liability cases
In proving a premises liability case, an injured person must show that the standard of reasonableness required by an owner has not been met. Perhaps the most difficult element an injured person must prove is the owner’s knowledge of the condition causing his or her injury. The injured person must prove that the owner knew or should have known the condition in order for liability to attach, which is often quite difficult to establish.
Defenses to liability in premises liability cases
One of the commonly applied theories to limit an injured person’s recovery is comparative or contributory fault. A visitor has a duty, in most cases, to exercise reasonable care for his or her own safety, and when that degree of care is not exercised, an injured person’s recovery may be limited or reduced by an amount attributable to his or her own negligence.
In the cases where a person’s injuries are the result of slipping on an icy sidewalk in front of a business or on a grape, banana peel or other food item that has fallen on a grocery store floor, the property owner may or may not be liable for the person’s injuries. Yes, property owners have a duty to exercise reasonable care to maintain the premises in such a way to prevent injuries to lawful visitors, but if the condition of the premises is blatantly obvious or should be readily apparent to a reasonable person, the property owner may be able to avoid liability. The injured party also has a duty to protect himself or herself from injury.
The property owner may also avoid liability by establishing that the debris had so recently fallen on the floor or that the ice had so recently accumulated that there was no reasonable opportunity to correct the condition and avoid the hazard before the plaintiff fell. In other words, the plaintiff in a slip and fall case, whether it occurs in a grocery store or elsewhere, must show that the owner had a reasonable period of time in which to discover the dangerous condition and in which to remedy it. If the plaintiff slips on newly fallen snow shortly after a blizzard started, the property owner likely hadn’t yet had the opportunity to clear the premises and thus might not be held liable. The determination of what constitutes a reasonable time will vary from case to case.
Contact a personal injury lawyer
Even common accidents such as slips and falls can present complex legal issues and complicated questions of both fact and law. Accordingly, if you have been injured in a premises-related accident, an experienced and knowledgeable personal injury attorney at Law Offices of Michael P. Burakoff, P.A. in Morristown, New Jersey, can advise you on your rights and work with you to pursue a favorable outcome.
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