How Do Premise Liability Claims Work?
The law imposes an obligation on property owners to ensure that property is reasonably safe. When a property owner allows the premise to become dangerous, any injuries that result from the dangerous conditions are actionable under the law. This duty applies to businesses, public lands, and private residences alike. Below is a brief overview of these premise liability claims.
Defects On Property
The law punishes both natural and artificial conditions of property that pose unreasonable dangers. Natural conditions are parts of the land that exist without building or improving it. Examples include ponds, rocks, and uneven, natural grounds. A land owner will generally have a duty to at least warn of these conditions, if not correct them. As the court noted in Jones v. Hansen, the test is whether the owner exercised reasonable care under the circumstances. This includes considering the maintenance of the property, the ease of providing an adequate warning, and utility of the condition. Basically, the court attempts to see if the property owner acted reasonably in maintaining the property. This means that a simple warning about hidden rocks in a large pasture is likely sufficient, but rocks laying in an intended walking path will likely need to be removed to avoid liability.
Premise liability claims can also be based on artificial conditions of the property. Artificial conditions are simply those that are created through construction or other actions; common examples are steps, buildings, or sidewalks. Alternatively, artificial conditions can include much more temporary aspects of property, such as spilled liquids or improperly stacked merchandise on shelves. Again, the standard is one of reasonable care under the circumstances. A property owner is required to maintain all structures in a safe condition under this standard. Thus, uneven stairs that cause a patron to trip or a loose ceiling fan that falls on a guest are both defects capable of supporting a premise liability claim.
Unlike invited guests, trespassers are not owed a duty of reasonable care. Instead, the property owner must simply refrain from willful misconduct directed towards trespassers. This means that a property owner cannot set “traps” for trespassers—even if these trespassers are criminals. A famous case on this point comes from Iowa: Katko v. Briney. In Katko, the property owner set up spring guns in their infrequently used hunting cabin, set to fire upon criminal trespassers. The court found these traps unlawful, setting out the willful standard. The Kansas Supreme Court agreed with this case, adopting and reaffirming the standard in Jones v. Hansen.
Trespassers under the law are not always criminals. Often, a trespasser is someone that is entitled to be on the premises, but exceeds the permissible bounds of that license. For example, a patron is welcome to look around a department store but clearly not welcome to go back into the storage and shipping areas of the store. When a guest goes into an area they are not welcome, they become a trespasser. For these trespassers, the standard is refraining from willful conduct and not reasonable care. This can result in strange parallels: an employee that trips over uneven flooring in a stock room likely has a claim against the store; a trespassing patron that trips over the same uneven flooring has no recourse because the action was not willful misconduct. Because of this stark contrast in standards of care, whether an individual has exceeded the scope of his or her license is often a key fact in a premise liability case.
The law provides extra protection to children. One example of this in the area of premise liability is the doctrine of attractive nuisance. An attractive nuisance is an artificial condition on property that is appealing to children, such as a swimming pool. The law requires that the owner of such property take reasonable steps to prevent children from accessing the property and potentially becoming injured, even though these children would be trespassers. Thus, most owners of a home with swimming pools must put up fences to surround their pools. This is in contrast to all other trespassers, where the property owner has no obligation to take any preventative steps to protect the trespasser.
Exceptions For Sidewalks
Kansas law recognizes a limited exception to liability when the defect is the sidewalk of the property. This is known as the “slight defect rule.” As the name suggests, the rule prohibits an injured party from recovering when the defect is a cracked or uneven sidewalk. The defect cannot be one of many defects on the sidewalk, nor can it be too extreme. If the defect is the sole defect and small enough to be deemed forgivable by the court, the injured plaintiff cannot recover. This rule can be invoked by both public and private property owners. However, as the court noted in Elstun v. Spangles, Inc., the rule is strictly limited to sidewalks. In Elstun, the plaintiff tripped over a roughly two-inch deep hole in a restaurant’s parking lot. The court decided that though the defect was likely “slight” enough, the slight defect rule could not be applied because the hole was located in the parking lot rather than on the sidewalk. The plaintiff was allowed to recover for her injuries free from the rule.
Property owners are charged with ensuring their property does not pose unreasonable risks to those that are invited to enter or use the property. Even trespassers are entitled to some level of protection, though this is limited to simply not creating dangers. When an individual is injured on the property of another, meaning key questions must be answered to determine if a premise liability claim exists. It is extremely important that experienced counsel be contacted so that the individual can pursue compensation for injuries suffered because of unreasonable and unsafe conditions on property.
Get your questions answered - call me for your free, 20-minute phone consultation (913) 451-9500.