Articles Posted in Premises Liability

Earlier this month, an appellate court in Rhode Island issued a written opinion in a premises liability lawsuit brought by a man who was injured while he was helping a friend move a large piece of furniture. According to the facts as presented in the court’s opinion, the plaintiff slipped and fell down a spiral staircase after he placed his weight on a handrail. As the plaintiff placed his weight on the handrail, the railing snapped, causing the plaintiff to lose his balance and fall down through the center of the spiral staircase.The plaintiff brought a premises liability lawsuit against his friend’s landlord, claiming that the landlord had failed to keep the railing – which was in a common area of the apartment building – in a reasonably safe condition.

The Evidence Presented at Trial

The plaintiff was the only witness to testify at trial. The plaintiff explained that he was trying to move a large piece of furniture down the stairs, but the landing was very small, so he had to position himself partially down the stairs. In doing so, it was necessary to place “just a little bit of pressure” on the rail.

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Earlier this month, a federal appellate court issued a written opinion in a case that arose from a bicycle accident that occurred on federally owned land. Ultimately, the case presented the court with the opportunity to determine whether the government was immune from liability under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which protects the discretionary acts of governments and government employees. Since the court determined that the alleged acts of negligence were discretionary, the court upheld the government’s sovereign immunity.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was riding her mountain bike in the De Soto National Forest. She did not look at the bulletin board at the trail head, which had a warning that the Couch Loop Trail was closed. The plaintiff and her friend continued down the Couch Loop Trail, eventually taking an alternate route off the main trail. This alternate route led the bikers to an area with various ramps, or “jumps.” The ramps were not built by the U.S. Forest Service, and the Forest Service claimed to have no knowledge of their existence.

The plaintiff rode over one of the ramps and fell, resulting in a serious injury. She filed a premises liability lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that the government was negligent in maintaining the land and also negligent in failing to warn her about the dangerous conditions. The plaintiff claimed that government immunity did not apply in this instance, since the acts of the rangers were ministerial. A ministerial act is one that does not involve the exercise of discretion.

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Property owners across the State of Virginia owe a duty to those whom they invite onto their land. The extent of that duty depends on the relationship between the parties. However, as a general rule, if someone is invited onto the property of another party and slips and falls due to a hazardous condition, they may have a case for damages against the property owner.

One common requirement for all premises liability lawsuits is that the injured party must be able to establish that the landowner’s negligence was the cause of their injuries. This is called the causation element. A recent case illustrates how a plaintiff’s inability to prove causation can be fatal to a premises liability lawsuit.

A Slip-and-Fall Accident Inside a Fast-Food Restaurant

The plaintiff in the case was a woman who was attempting to visit a fast-food restaurant. Like many businesses, the restaurant’s entrance consisted of two sets of double doors, with a small foyer between them. The plaintiff entered the first set of doors without a problem, but as she tried to open the second set of doors, she was unable to do so. She jiggled the door with no luck. She then started to shake the door, trying to open it, and the next thing she knew, she was on the floor. After she fell, she noticed that the ground around her was damp due to the rain outside.

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Thousands of personal injury cases are filed each year across the State of Virginia. While many of these cases have merit, the reality is that some do not. To help deal with this reality, and to alleviate the burden on the court system, courts have enacted a strict set of procedures to help ensure that only meritorious cases make it in front of a jury. Perhaps the most common of these procedures is a motion for summary judgment.

In Virginia, summary judgment is a way for one party to obtain judgment in their favor very early in the process. Essentially, if summary judgment is appropriate, the judge will enter judgment in favor of that party, and the case is over without the need to submit the case to a jury and engage in additional fact-finding. However, summary judgment is only proper when there “is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.”

The burden rests with the moving party, meaning the party that is asking the court for judgment in its favor. This party must establish that – taking the evidence on its face and without assessing credibility – they are entitled to judgment in their favor. If conflicting evidence exists, or a credibility determination must be made between competing sources, summary judgment is not appropriate. A recent case illustrates each party’s burdens in a summary judgment motion filed by the defense in a personal injury case.

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Whenever someone is injured on another party’s property, the property owner may be legally liable for the injuries suffered by the injured party under the theory of premises liability. Premises liability cases are based on the legal theory that landowners owe a duty of care to keep those whom they invite onto their land safe. The level of duty owed to the guest depends on the relationship between the landowner and the guest.

In Virginia, plaintiffs must prove that the defendant property owner owed a duty of care to the injured party that was violated by some action or inaction. Most often, these cases are brought after a property owner fails to take some kind of action to remedy a hazard on their property. For example, an unshoveled walkway or puddle of water can very easily result in a guest slipping and falling.

Virginia premises liability plaintiffs must also prove that the property owner was negligent in their failure to remedy the hazard. This often entails showing that the property owner knew or should have known of the dangerous condition. If a plaintiff cannot prove that the landowner had the requisite level of knowledge, it is unlikely that their claim will be successful.

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Earlier this month, one state’s appellate court issued a written opinion in a case brought by the parents of a young boy who was injured while participating in the defendant’s trampoline park. In the case, Alicea v. Activelaf, the court allowed the plaintiff’s lawsuit against the defendant to proceed toward trial despite the fact that the plaintiff signed an agreement to arbitrate any claims against the defendant.

The Facts

The Aliceas were planning on taking their two young boys to the defendant’s trampoline park. Prior to being admitted into the park, the Aliceas were required to sign a “Participant Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk.” The online form contained three large blocks of text with check boxes next to each. The form required checks in all three boxes, the names and dates of birth of all participating children, and a signature at the bottom. The form contained several clauses; relevant to this case was an arbitration clause that purported to waive any right that the participant had to file a case against the defendant in a court of law. Instead, all claims would be settled by arbitration. There was also a clause stating that a $5,000 fee would be imposed if a case was filed against the defendant in a court of law. Ms. Alicea checked all three boxes on the form, signed it, and submitted it electronically.

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Under the theory of premises liability, business owners have an obligation to ensure that the customers they invite into their stores are kept reasonably safe. In fact, customers of a commercial enterprise are known as “invitees” under the law and enjoy the highest level of protection. This means that businesses must use reasonable care to ensure that their business is reasonably safe. Included in this duty is the requirement that business owners warn customers of any potential hidden dangers on the premises, such as spills, holes, or uneven pavement.

In order for an injured party to hold a business liable for a “hidden danger,” the accident victim must establish that the business owner had knowledge of the danger to begin with. This can be proven through evidence showing that the business had actual knowledge of the danger, or evidence showing that the business should have known about the danger, given the surrounding facts. A recent lawsuit filed by an Ohio woman who was injured while at the supermarket shows how this can play out in real life.

A Woman Is Struck by a Motorized Grocery Cart

Earlier this month, a jury returned a $1.3 million verdict in favor of a woman who was seriously injured at the defendant’s grocery store after she was struck by a motorized grocery cart being operated by another customer. According to an industry news source reporting on the case, the 71-year-old woman was struck by the cart and tossed approximately four feet, where she struck her head on a shelf.

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The United States was founded on certain principles that have remained with the country through the state and federal constitutions, common law decisions, and legislatively enacted statutes. One of these principles is the idea that a government entity should not be held liable for any injuries caused as a function of the government carrying out its governmental business. This is called government immunity.

However, to say that a government is immune from all lawsuits that may arise while carrying out government business would grossly overstate the principle. In fact, governments can – and often are – held liable for their negligent and reckless actions, as long as there is evidence to overcome the immunity. Generally speaking, a negligent act will not rise to the level of culpability necessary to overcome immunity. Instead, there must be some “willful” or “wanton” conduct. While an intentional action certainly would satisfy this requirement, it is not required. Courts are willing to infer this level of culpability if a plaintiff can show, for example, that a government entity knew about a dangerous defect but failed to do anything about it. This is exactly what happened in a recent case involving a woman who tripped and fell on an uneven sidewalk.

Bernardoni v. City of Saginaw:  The Facts

In this case, a woman tripped and fell on two uneven slabs of concrete that made up the sidewalk. She filed a lawsuit against the City of Saginaw, claiming that it should be held liable for her injuries because the city was negligent in failing to repair the sidewalk. In a pre-trial deposition, she claimed that she did not know how long the sidewalk had been in that condition, but she believed it to have been like that for at least 30 days. In addition to her testimony, she provided photographs taken 30 days after her fall, showing the uneven surface.

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Businesses and other property owners owe a duty to those whom they invite onto their premises to keep and maintain a safe property. The level of care owed to a visitor depends in part on the relationship between the landowner and the guest. For example, a customer of a business is owed a more substantial duty than an unknown trespasser.

This duty is in place irrespective of the type of property, meaning that private property owners owe a duty, just as does the government, and so do non-profit organizations. In a recent case in front of a California appellate court, the court had an opportunity to discuss how far liability can extend in premises liability cases alleging that the landowner was negligent in the placement of a parking lot.

Vasilenko v. Grace Family Church:  The Facts

Grace Family Church was located on a busy five-lane highway. Since the church’s parking lot would often fill up, the church arranged to use another parking lot across the highway when the primary lot filled. While parking attendants were present in both lots to direct traffic, there was no one available to assist churchgoers in crossing the busy five-lane highway to get back to the church from the parking lot.

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Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a premises liability lawsuit brought by a man who was permanently paralyzed after he dove into a state-owned pond, breaking his neck. In the case, Roy v. State, the court ultimately dismissed the plaintiff’s claim against the government, based on the state’s recreational use statute.

Recreational Use Statutes in General

A recreational use statute is a legislatively enacted law that acts to prevent injured accident victims from holding certain property owners financially responsible. Specifically, the recreational use statute grants immunity to those who open their land for the general enjoyment of the public. In order for the doctrine to apply, the landowner must not be receiving a fee from the people using the land.

In Virginia, the recreational use statute requires qualifying property owners to remain free of liability for any dangerous condition on their land unless the owner acts with “gross negligence” or a “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition.”

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