Premises liability is the legal theory that allows injured people to seek compensation for their damages after they have been hurt on someone else’s property. A typical case involves a customer who slips and falls on spilled liquid at a supermarket or other store. The theory holds that property owners have a duty to their guests to remove safety hazards that might cause injury to their guests, or at least to warn their guests about the hazards.
The above is a very broad introduction to premises liability law. Premises liability law becomes much more complicated when you get down to the details of the law and the specific circumstances of an accident and a premises liability claim.
Duty of reasonable care
At the heart of all premises liability cases is this question: What would a reasonable property owner have done under the same circumstances?
Courts look at the facts of the case and determine what a reasonably careful property owner would have done under the circumstances. For instance, in a case where the hazard involved a spilled carton of milk on a supermarket floor, a court might decide a reasonably prudent owner would have mopped up the spill within minutes so as to avoid the risk of an accident. With this in mind, the court decides the defendant breached their duty of reasonable care. If the court finds that this breach was the cause of the accident, the defendant can be held liable for the injured person’s damages, including medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering.
Open and obvious danger
The property owner has a duty to repair safety hazards that might lead to injury for their guests, but guests also have a duty to act reasonably so as to prevent the risk of injury to themselves and others. In other words, if a customer was injured while they were taking unreasonable risks — such as climbing on a supermarket shelf — a court is unlikely to find the store owner liable for their damages.
This brings up a related concept known as the “open and obvious danger” rule. Massachusetts courts have long held that a property owner’s duty to remedy dangers doesn’t necessarily mean they must remedy hazards that are so easily apparent that any reasonable person would see them and understand the risks involved.
For instance, a property owner has some duty to clear their parking lot of snow and ice during the winter so as to prevent injury to their guests, but it may be impossible to make the parking lot 100% ice-free. Guests can generally see the icy conditions and feel the freezing temperatures, so this is an open and obvious danger. Customers should understand the risks when they step out of their vehicles.
Understand your options
There are many cases where the facts and the law are not as clear as they are in the examples we have used in this blog post. Those who have been injured, or family members who have lost a loved one in an accident on someone else’s property can talk to an experienced attorney to learn how the law may apply to the unique facts of their case.