The term “premises liability” refers to the liability of persons or entities for injuries and damages to others arising from the ownership or possession of real property. In California, premises liability is based on general principles of negligence and is controlled both by statute and case law.
The general duty of reasonable care provides that every person or enitity is responsible, not only for the results of his or her willful acts, but also for any injury to another by his or her lack of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person. (Civ. Code, § 1714, subd. (a).) In certain circumstances, however, departures from this general duty are warranted.
In the case of a landowner’s liability for injuries to persons on the property, the determination of whether a duty exists involves the balancing of a number of considerations. The main factors include: the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff; the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury; the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered; the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct; the policy of preventing future harm; the extent of the burden to the defendant and the consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach; and the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved. The scope of a landowner’s legal duty supporting premises liability is determined, in part, by balancing the foreseeability of the harm against the burden of the duty to be imposed. Broadly speaking, premises liability alleges a defendant property owner allowed a dangerous condition on its property or failed to take reasonable steps to secure its property against criminal acts by third parties. As in any other negligence action, the injured person must establish the following: (1) the existence of a duty on the part of the defendant to use due care; (2) a breach of this legal duty; and (3) the breach as the proximate or legal cause of the resulting injury. Liability in premises liability action is based not on responsibility for the conduct of others, but on the failure of the landowner or occupier to act reasonably under the circumstances when he or she has reason to anticipate the probability of injury and has an opportunity to prevent the injury or warn of the peril.
However, an owner or possessor of premises is generally not liable for trivial defects. For instance, a crack in a sidewalk of less than one-half inch elevation, on which a pedestrian tripped, was found trivial as a matter of law in the absence of a showing that other conditions made the walkway dangerous; thus, the private landowner was relieved of liability for the pedestrian’s injuries.
Although, a plaintiff ordinarily has the burden to prove the owner had actual or constructive notice of the defect in sufficient time to correct it, the California Supreme Court has held that the plaintiff, in a slip and fall case, does not need to show actual knowledge where evidence suggests that the dangerous condition was present for a sufficient period of time to charge the owner with constructive knowledge of its existence. Such knowledge may be shown by circumstantial evidence which proves that a dangerous condition existed for an unreasonable time; and evidence that an inspection had not been made within a particular period of time prior to an accident may warrant an inference that the defective condition existed long enough so that a person exercising reasonable care would have discovered it.
Premises liability actions have traditionally involved “slip and fall” or “trip and fall” causes of action. Premises liability is not, however, limited to such causes of action and includes, among other things, construction accidents, dog bite cases, and injuries caused by the negligent or willful conduct of third persons on the premises involved.
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