Every year, roughly eight million people are rushed to the emergency room after a serious fall, and many of these incidents occur away from home. Moreover, thousands of people are hurt or killed every year at swimming pools, due to drowning or poisoning (too many pool cleaning chemicals or not enough chemicals). Altogether, landowner liability-related issues are the largest single reason for injury-related hospital visits.
That being said, a third party landowner is not always legally responsible for a fall or other injury away from home. Occasionally, one runs across stories of burglars or other trespassers who are injured on someone else’s land and sue the property owners for damages. While there is some grain of truth to these tales, they are almost entirely false. So, what does a victim need to prove in court to obtain compensation for fall injuries?
Duty (Legal Responsibility)
To determine duty of care, many jurisdictions apply a standard duty of care to landowners, much like the duty of reasonable care that applies to motorists. However, South Carolina still uses a common-law classification system that divides victims into three categories:
- Trespassers: This is a pejorative term that simply means people who are on the land without the owner’s express permission. Burglars are clearly trespassers; party crashers and guests of guests are arguably trespassers as well. In most cases, with some important exceptions discussed below, owners have no legal responsibility when trespassers are injured.
- Licensees: These are people who have at least indirect permission to be on the land, but the owners receive no benefit from their presence. Many social guests are licensees. In these cases, owners must warn guests about latent defects, such as loose stairway rails or non functioning lights.
- Invitees: All business guests are invitees, whether or not money changes hands (so window shoppers, job applicants, and vendors are invitees); arguably, this term applies to some social guests as well, because owners receive an intangible benefit from the social interaction. In these instances, owners have a duty to keep the premises reasonably safe and frequently inspect the premises to ensure safety.
One of the reasons some jurisdictions no longer use this system is because the categories overlap, and different factfinders reach different conclusions under different circumstances. Also, the terms are rather arcane and it is difficult for most people, including many jurors, to grasp the subtle differences.
In the 1960s, South Carolina lawmakers passed a measure that gives owners immunity from liability lawsuits if they open their land for recreational use and the participants are injured. This provision does not apply if the owners were “grossly negligent” or if the owners charged a fee for land use. Furthermore, although the general rule for trespassers is no liability, there are some exceptions. For example, the attractive nuisance doctrine protects child trespassers. This rule applies if the owner fails to close off swimming pools, construction sites, and other places where children are likely to play and these children are injured.
Most all landowner liability cases involve invitees. In these cases, victims must prove either actual or constructive knowledge of the defect, which means that the owner either knew or should have known about the problem. Direct evidence is difficult to come by, because there are frequently no witnesses other than the victims, there is often no video surveillance footage, and there is hardly ever a police officer who determines fault and makes a written report. However, such evidence sometimes exists, in the form of restroom cleanliness reports, service invoices, and “cleanup on aisle six” announcements.
In circumstantial evidence cases involving constructive knowledge, the rule comes from Anjou v. Boston Elevated Railway Company (1911). Ms. Anjou slipped on a banana peel which witnesses described as “flattened down, and black in color,” as if it had been “trampled over a good deal.” The property owner claimed that it did not know about the peel and therefore had no duty to clean it up, even though Ms. Anjou was an invitee.
The court concluded that since the peel was black, it had been on the floor for a long time, and that liability attached through constructive knowledge. Conversely, if the peel had been fresh and yellow, it probably had just fallen on the ground, and the victim would have to show direct knowledge to obtain compensation. So, if a parking lot light recently burned out and the victim slipped in the dark, the owner is probably not liable. However, if the light had been out for some time, the owner should have replaced and and therefore must compensate the victim for damages.
These damages include money for economic losses, such as physical therapy costs, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. In some cases, additional punitive damages may be available as well.
Partner with an Assertive Attorney
Landowners are often legally responsible for injuries that occur on their property. For a free consultation with an determined personal injury lawyer in Charleston, contact the David Aylor Law Offices. Home and hospital visits are available.