When Is The Owner Liable For Harm In Slip And Falls Cases?
As a personal injury lawyer who handles slip and fall cases in the West Chester County area of Pennsylvania, occasionally I receive calls from prospective clients wishing to file claims against property owners for injuries they have suffered when a slip, trip or fall unfortunately happens to them. The callers almost always assume they are entitled to recover damages for the injuries from the property owner no matter what the circumstances of the fall. This could not be further from the truth.
For example, I had researched a case recently where a person slipped and fell in a department store. However, the potential client could not identify what he slipped and fell on other than that his hand felt damp when he placed it on the floor. This is not enough to win a case.
Slip And Fall Cases: Invitee, Licensee Or Trespasser?
The standard of care owed by the owner of land to a person who enters the land depends upon whether the person who entered is an invitee, a licensee or a trespasser.
An invitee is a public or business visitor. This is a person who is invited to enter on the land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is held open to the public (such as a public park). A business visitor is a person who is invited to enter or remain on land for the purpose of directly or indirectly conducting business dealings with the owner or occupier of the land (shopping mall). A licensee is any other person permitted to enter with the owner’s consent. Another category which affords less rights to an individual is a trespasser. This is a person who enters the property without a right or privilege to do so. The only duty owed to a trespasser is to refrain from wanton or willful conduct. Other than that, they are on their own.
The owner of a business property is only required to use reasonable care to maintain the property. In other words, protect invitees from what they call “foreseeable” harm that the visitor may not recognize. An owner of land is required to periodically inspect his premises to discover dangerous situations and to correct them. In my slip and fall case example there are two questions; (1) was the floor really defective (wet) and (2) how long had it been wet. Had somebody come out of the store a minute before and dropped liquid or had the liquid been laying there long enough that a reasonable inspection would have discovered the problem giving the property owner time to clean it up? My client did know – and my investigation was unable to tell.
The owner of land is liable for harm caused to invitees by a condition on the land if:
- The owner knows, or by using reasonable care, would discover the condition and should realize it involves an unreasonable risk of harm.
- The owner should expect the invitee will not discover or realize the danger himself or herself or will fail to protect themselves against it, and
- The owner failed to use reasonable care to protect an invitee against this danger.
The owner or occupier of land is liable to an invitee for any harm that the owner or occupier should have anticipated, regardless of whether the danger is known or obvious.
In the case of this particular slip and fall situation, the gentleman who fell, although he was a business invitee and (therefore a high degree of care was owed), he still could not prove what the dangerous condition was or that the floor was in a dangerous condition for such a long time that it should have been spotted and cleaned up.
I did not take the case. My experience as a personal injury attorney clearly told me that there was thin evidence, and that this unfortunate individual would not benefit from a lawsuit.