Premises Liability cases rest upon the theory that the owner of property is responsible for any unsafe conditions upon the property. In the event that an individual becomes injured from that unsafe condition, Premises Liability law states that the property owner may be held legally culpable for compensating the injured party for any damages he or she suffers. The Chicago premises liability attorneys at Abels & Annes can advise you of your rights and help you get compensation for your injuries.
Many people equate Premises Liability with “slip and fall” cases, and this perception is conceptually accurate: a typical Premises Liability case might involve a slippery floor in a supermarket, upon which a patron falls and injures his back. However, Premises Liability law is much broader than that—and also not so simple.
Contrary to what many people believe, merely becoming injured on someone’s property—even if it is a serious injury—is not always sufficient to create liability. Like all negligence cases, the elements of Premises Liability fall into a general pattern:
Accordingly, when it comes to Premises Liability, as a general rule, landowners (or occupiers of land, such as the operator of a grocery store on leased land) have a duty to maintain and keep their property in a reasonably safe condition to avoid injuring those who are on the property. Failure to maintain safe premises constitutes a breach of that duty, and an individual suffering an injury as a result of an unsafe condition may be able to hold the property owner legally liable.When Will a Property Owner Be Liable for an Injury Occurring on His Property?
In order to be liable under the theory of Premises Liability, the owner of land (or occupier, as the case may be) must have notice of the dangerous condition. This may be actual notice—that is the landowner is aware that there is a broken stair, for example, or that someone spilled a bottle of olive oil in the grocery store aisle—or it may be “constructive notice”—that is, a responsible owner, in the exercise of ordinary care would or should know of the dangerous condition. In some cases, the latter might be shown by something as simple as failing to meeting a building code requirement. For example, if a building does not have enough fire sprinklers or smoke detectors to meet applicable building codes, then the owner could be said to have “constructive notice” of the fault because a responsible property owner exercising ordinary care would make sure his building met all relevant codes, even if the actual owner was not in fact aware of the deficiency.
The notice requirement, however, also means that if an owner has no reasonable means or opportunity of ascertaining the dangerous condition, liability may not lie. For example, in the case of the olive oil: if a grocery store patron knocks down and breaks a bottle of oil, and then simply walks away without notifying a store employee or taking any other steps to minimize the danger, and then someone unaware of the condition walks down the aisle immediately afterward and slips and falls, the owner of the grocery store may have a defense: they had no means or opportunity of ascertaining or responding to the danger, and therefore had not breached their duty of care to the injured party.
In addition, the law of Premises Liability distinguishes between different types of people who may be on a property, and the status of that person may determine liability. In Illinois, the law distinguishes between invitees or licensees and trespassers.
In invitee or licensee may be customers for a store, ticket-holders for an event, firemen, policemen, job applicants, baby-sitters, houseguests, delivery persons, and so on. In other words, they are individuals who are allowed or invited to come onto property for a specific purpose that benefits the landowner. A trespasser, however, is not invited or welcome by the landowner. A trespasser may be a criminal who has entered property for an unlawful purpose, or it may simply be someone who enters onto private property for some other reason.
A landowner owes a duty of care to invitees or licensees to be aware of any conditions that might pose an unreasonable risk of harm to the invitee or licensee, to anticipate that the invitee or licensee may not be able to discover or realize the risk of harm, and therefore to exercise reasonable care in preventing the invitee or licensee from suffering the harm.
Incidentally, there is no hard and fast rule for what preventative measures are required other than the standard of “reasonableness.” For example, it may require a prominent warning sign for a slippery floor, fencing off an area where there is a hole in the ground, extra lighting for a stairwell, special paint markings for an uneven sidewalk or step, a warning light or bell for oncoming traffic, and so on. In other words, “reasonableness” requires an owner to take steps that would be sufficient to make it easy for an invitee or licensee to become aware of and capable of avoiding a dangerous condition. Accordingly, even if a landowner has taken some precautionary measure, an injured party may always allege that the precaution taken was not reasonable under the circumstances, or that some other or additional steps should have been taken.
For a trespasser, however, Illinois Premises Liability law is less solicitous. While a landowner may not willfully or wantonly injure a trespasser, a landowner generally has no duty to protect trespassers. While there are some important exceptions to this principle, such as where the landowner is carrying out some particularly dangerous activity on the land; there is some unreasonably dangerous area on the land; or the landowner is aware of—and generally tolerates—frequent trespassers (for example, if a landowner knows that children frequently walk through his land as a short-cut from a school bus to their homes), a landowner generally has no duty to minimize the risk of harm to trespassers.Illinois Has Special Rules Regarding Falls on Ice and Snow
In addition to treating trespassers different from others, Illinois has other rules that can protect landowners from liability. Being a state in which harsh winters are commonplace, Illinois has some special considerations with respect to snowy or icy conditions. Because landowners are not insurers of invitees or licensees, Illinois courts have adopted a general rule that “natural” conditions that can make property dangerous, such as icy sidewalks or water tracked-in off of someone’s boots, should not lead to Premises Liability. However, like most areas of the law, this rule, too, has some important exceptions.
In particular, courts recognize that landowners may create or exacerbate the normal dangers of ice and snow or that there may be underlying conditions that create danger in icy or snowy conditions. For example, a landowner may clear or remove snow in a particular way that creates a new danger, or may fail to provide lighting for an icy pathway or fail to cover a ditch that, when it becomes filled with snow, looks level with the surrounding surface and creates a trip or fall hazard. Consequently, injured parties may still be able to make a valid Premises Liability claim even where an injury involves icy or snowy conditions.
If You Need Assistance or Advice in Evaluating a Premises Liability Case, Call the Attorneys at Abels & Annes
Clearly, many personal injury cases involving Premises Liability are not always “cut and dried,” no matter what many people think. While some cases may be straightforward and easy to settle, there are also many cases in which difficult questions arise in proving one or more of the elements needed to demonstrate liability. In addition, some injuries can be very critical, involving broken bones, requiring complicated surgery, or causing permanent debilitation due to back, neck or even brain damage; this is especially true when the injured parties are elderly. As a general rule, the greater and more serious the injury, the greater is the incentive for property owners (and their insurers) to mount a vigorous defense.
At Abels & Annes, we have represented clients in “slip and fall” and other Premises Liability cases involving everything from simple to serious injuries, from quick settlements to extended negotiation or litigation. We firmly believe that bringing Premises Liability and other personal injury cases are an important measure in enforcing the requirement for businesses and individuals to behave responsibly toward others. Our goal is to make sure that people do not operate their businesses or their property in ways that create unnecessary risks of harm to the public.
In particular, we know that many property owners in Chicago and the surrounding communities are not always diligent in keeping their property free from dangerous hazards, and people who are injured by the negligence and inaction of irresponsible property owners should get the compensation to which they are rightfully and legally entitled.
If you need assistance or advice in evaluation a Premises Liability case, call the Law Offices of Abels & Annes in Chicago toll-free at (855) LAW-CHICAGO or locally at (312) 924-7575. Your consultation is free and, if we take your case, you will never pay a fee unless we recover damages on your behalf.