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When Is a Property Owner Liable for a Slip & Fall?

a wet floor sign next to a puddle

Slip and fall accidents are among the most common types of personal injury cases which invoke premises liability – or, a landowner’s financial responsibility for injuries victims suffer on their property.

In theory, if someone slips, trips, or falls due to a preventable hazard on another’s property, the entity or individual who owns or controls that property would be liable for the resulting damages (things like medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering).

In practice, slip and fall cases are not always so simple. They may present a multitude of challenges for victims and families, introduce specific legal concepts of duty and premises liability, and raise questions about:

  1. Where the accident occurred and who “owned” or “controlled” the property;
  2. When an accident occurred and issues of actual or constructive notice (i.e. whether a land owner knew or should have known) about potential hazards likely to cause a slip or fall;
  3. Whether slip and fall hazards were obvious to victims, or concealed;
  4. Whether there exist other potentially liable parties who may bear, in whole or in part, responsibility for dangerous conditions and damages;

Slip & Falls On Residential, Commercial and Government Property

One issue that has implications in a slip and fall case is the type of property involved. Slip and falls may occur on residential property (like a person’s home or rental house), commercial property (such as a business or retailer), or government property (such as a public park, subway station, or government building).

Depending on where a slip and fall accident took place, different rules and procedures may apply.

As we discussed in our previous blog about the key elements of premises liability, these cases are be hinged on the element of duty, which requires landowners to:

  1. Keep property in a reasonably safe condition;
  2. Use reasonable care to discover dangerous conditions; and
  3. Repair, replace, or warned about dangerous conditions which could reasonably be expected to cause harm (i.e. a slip and fall).

Residential Property

In residential settings, landowners can be held responsible for accidents and injuries on their property. Examples include:

  • A private home or residence;
  • Multi-family housing (i.e. apartment buildings, condominiums, and townhome complexes);
  • Rental home or rented apartment / condo.

Victims injured on residential property may seek compensation from a private homeowner (through their homeowner’s insurance), a landlord from whom they are renting the property, or a housing complex or HOA (through their commercial insurance policy).

In some cases, third parties may be potentially liable for damages, including third-party contractors and vendors (i.e. maintenance workers, apartment staff, and licensees performing work) who created the dangerous hazard, as well as product manufacturers responsible for defective products (i.e. defective handrail).

Commercial Property

Slip and fall accidents on commercial property can involve many different scenarios. Examples include:

  • Slips on wet surfaces or puddles in the aisles of a grocery store or retailer;
  • Accidents resulting from a failure to warn about dangerous conditions (i.e. failure to post notice to customers or prevent access to a puddle or tripping hazard)
  • Falls caused by open holes or changes in elevation on commercial property;
  • Trip and falls on uneven surfaces, walkways, and thresholds on commercial property (i.e. flooring damage or imperfections);

Slip and fall victims injured on commercial property may have greater opportunity to recover the full scope of their damages, as commercial property owners typically have larger insurance policies than residential homeowners. However, commercial property owners are also usually corporations, and therefore have financial interests in protecting their bottom line, and paying victims as little as possible.

Experienced attorneys can help victims investigate their premises accidents, gather and preserve evidence, and determine who can be held liable – whether it be an employer / business, third-party contractor, public utility, product manufacturer, or some combination thereof.

Government Property

Slip and falls on government property may involve any type of publicly owned land, including:

  • Public parks and playgrounds
  • Public sidewalks and walkways
  • Public or government buildings

When personal injury occurs on government property, unique rules and procedures apply. That includes not only broad immunity protections that can shield government entities against liability, but also strict requirements for filing a Notice of Claim with the relevant municipality, County, State, or Federal government.

Under the California Tort Claims Act, victims injured on public property must provide a Notice of Claim within 6 months of the date of injury (as opposed to the 2 year statute of limitations in most personal injury cases) in order to preserve their right to legal action and compensation. Other rules and restrictions may apply, depending on the owning entity.

Common Issues in Slip & Fall Cases

The Element of Duty

Slip and fall cases, like any premises liability action, focus on the legal duty a landowner (or a party with sufficient control of a property) has to act with reasonable care in the upkeep of property.

Though all landowners have a duty to exercise reasonable care in keeping their premises safe, that duty can be different depending on the likelihood (foreseeability) of injury.

For example, a landowner’s duty may vary when:

  • Dangerous conditions on a property are openly obvious. When conditions are open and obvious to the extent that any reasonable person would identify them and know they are dangerous, landowners do not have a duty to warn guests (or customers) about the hazard. However, if the dangerous condition poses risks of foreseeable, they may still have the duty to make reasonable efforts to repair or replace the hazard (CACI 1004).
  • A defect on a landowner’s property is trivial. Landowners are generally not liable for damages arising from insignificant defects on property (CACI 1003).
  • They are a landlord renting to a tenant. Landlords must conduct reasonable periodic inspections of the property and common areas under their control whenever they have the legal right of possession, and before leasing the property to tenants to discover and address dangerous conditions (CACI 1006).

Dangerous Conditions & Challenging Issues

While there may be many challenging issues present in slip and fall cases, certain types of cases can be more difficult than others. Examples include cases where:

  • Dangerous conditions exist only under certain circumstances. This includes hazards which are difficult to perceive, and which a reasonable person would not be expected to identify, such as a certain type of tile or walking surfaces that is safe until it is wet, at which point it becomes unreasonably slippery.
  • Dangerous conditions are concealed. This includes dangerous conditions which no reasonable person would be expected to identify, such as a stairway that appears safe to most people, but in reality is dangerous due to improperly sized treads or risers, or an absence of handrails. In some cases, this may mean dangerous conditions which caused a slip and fall resulted from product defects (i.e. design or manufacturing defects), or the negligence of a third party (i.e. a developer, licensed contractor, or party who installed inappropriate flooring surfaces or improperly built the handrails).
  • Adjacent / Abutting Property: Though premises liability applies to a landowner’s property, it may also extend to adjacent or abutting property. While landowners are not obligated to maintain a public street or sidewalk abutting their property, they do have a duty to avoid creating an unsafe condition on the surrounding street or sidewalk (CACI 1007), such as a homeowner leaving tree limbs on a heavily used sidewalk in front their home after trimming.

Notice Requirement in Slip and Fall Cases

Landowners are generally liable for damages caused by dangerous conditions they did not reasonably address on their property if they either knew (had actual knowledge) or should have known (constructive knowledge) about it.

This means property owners can be liable for slip and fall damages when:

  • The property owner or their employee / agent caused a dangerous condition, such as a spill;
  • The property owner or their employee / agent knew about a dangerous condition (such as a freezer that leaked ice) but failed to fix it or warn customers / prevent access to the area;
  • The property owner or their employee / agent should have known about a dangerous condition (such as broken lights in a stairwell) because a “reasonable” person caring for the property would have discovered and repaired it.

While the first two scenarios show property owners can be held liable when they caused or knew about a dangerous condition – or when one of their employees caused or knew about a foreseeable injury-causing hazard – cases where a property owner should have known about a dangerous condition can be more difficult, and will require meticulous investigation into proving constructive knowledge.

A landowner’s constructive knowledge can be demonstrated by evidence and documentation of prior incidents which show the landowner had sufficient time to discover a dangerous condition and make reasonable efforts to protect against it (CACI 1011). Evidence that can be gathered to support this may include:

  • Company policies, safety manuals, rules and regulations (CC&Rs), and other internal records showing how maintenance, inspections, and safety procedures are handled;
  • Maintenance / inspection logs showing when inspections or repairs were performed, what they entailed, and whether dangerous conditions were noted, repaired, or even recurrent;
  • Incident reports or complaints to management regarding dangerous conditions;
  • HOA meeting minutes, HOA newsletters, and other similar documents;
  • Publicly available data, including prior lawsuit filings.

Proven Representation for Slip & Fall Victims

Biren Law Group is a boutique personal injury practice that has helped injured victims and families across Los Angeles and Southern California secure millions in compensation after suffering preventable harm and losses. If you have questions about a potential slip and fall accident case, your rights, and how our firm can help, contact us for a free consultation.