Premises Liability: Fall-Down Cases Involving Invitees

Property owners have a legal duty to make their premises safe for customers and other visitors.  It does not take much of a hazard to cause significant injuries to an unsuspecting visitor.  Hazards like slippery floors, ice and snow, uneven or deteriorated walking surfaces, poor lighting, dangerous stairs or ramps and other unsafe conditions can result in an accident which might render the property owner liable.  The primary question in such cases is whether the owner acted reasonably to make the property safe for its invitees.

Under Pennsylvania law, a property owner can be held liable for injuries sustained by an invited visitor such as a customer if:

  • The owner or an employee of the business caused the dangerous condition;
  • The owner or an employee of the business knew about the dangerous condition and did nothing about it; or
  • The owner or an employee of the business should have known of the dangerous condition but failed to take reasonable steps to discover and correct it.

However, the mere happening of an accident does not render the property owner negligent.  Rather, the burden is on the injured party to establish with sufficient evidence some specific fault by the property owner such as the owner’s employee spilling a slippery substance on a floor, or the owner’s failing to repair a crumbled and cracked sidewalk when he was aware or should have been aware of that defect.  An owner has a duty to make reasonable inspections to discover dangerous conditions.  If negligence is established, the owner may have a number of defenses to the claim such as that it did not have actual or constructive notice of the hazard; that the injured person was negligent such as picking a dangerous pathway or failing to look where he or she was walking; that the defect was so small as to be trivial; or that the danger was known or obvious to the injured person.

A fall-down case is really controlled by its own specific facts and circumstances.  The specific details of each case can make a significant difference.  For example, a liquid spill from a shopping cart onto a grocery store floor for a few seconds would not likely render the store owner liable.  However, an accumulation of liquid on the floor from a leaky refrigerator that had been leaking for several days or weeks would likely establish liability against the owner.  The distinction between the two scenarios is whether the store owner had a reasonable opportunity to discover the hazardous condition and correct it or otherwise warn the customer.

Another illustration of facts and circumstances that can alter the outcome dramatically would be a situation involving curbs.  A deteriorated curb running along a sidewalk in a very isolated area might not require the property owner to be as vigilant where little walking traffic was reasonably anticipated in that area.  However, the same curb in an area of heavy walking traffic such as outside a large store or business would very likely require the property owner to make substantial efforts to inspect those areas and to perform any necessary repairs to make it safe for visitors.  In other words, the law provides that a property owner who uses the property in a certain manner which would involve a greater risk of harm to potential visitors would have a heightened duty to make those areas safe.

In fall-down cases, the jury essentially determines the reasonableness of each party’s conduct from the evidence presented by the parties at trial.   Was the property owner reasonable in its efforts to make the property safe for visitors?  Was the plaintiff reasonable in the manner he or she travelled on the property?  Are the damages appropriate or overstated?  Reasonableness is ultimately the focus of the jury in such cases. When a person is injured in a fall-down case, it is absolutely essential that he or she immediately contact a lawyer.  While that is probably good advice in any type of personal injury matter, the need for immediate involvement by an attorney in a fall down case is urgent.  For instance, in an auto accident, the need might not be as significant because a police report probably sets forth most of the important facts.  In a fall-down case, the ability to take photographs promptly and to do proper investigation can dramatically affect whether a claim will later be successful.  A lawyer wants to be in the best position to evaluate promptly and thoroughly whether the owner has acted reasonably in making the premises safe.

— Curt Ward

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