Thousands of pedestrian accidents occur each year because of defects in property. This is in addition to pedestrian-vehicle accidents. Poor property maintenance such as vegetation overgrowth, spaces that are poorly lit, potholes in parking lots, toys or tools left in walkways creating trip-hazards, and sidewalks that are not level – all of these conditions and more contribute to pedestrian accidents.
The law regarding the duty of property owners to fix hazardous conditions on their property or warn of them if they cannot be immediately removed is sometimes referred to as “premises liability law.”
Pedestrian Accidents Involving Property
In the majority of jurisdictions, property owners have a duty to care for their property so that it does not pose the risk of harm to pedestrians. Property owners also have a duty to warn people of any clear hazards on their property. If a person is injured because of a property owner’s negligence, they may be able to recover damages for the injuries suffered.
In order to recover damages for negligence, a person must show:
- A property owner owed a duty of care to pedestrians on their property;
- A property owner’s negligence created a dangerous condition on the property;
- A pedestrian lawfully present on the property suffered injury because of the dangerous condition;
- The injury the pedestrian suffered was a foreseeable consequence of the hazard that caused it; and
- The injured pedestrian incurred damages because of their injuries.
Every owner of property across which pedestrians walk owes a duty to the pedestrians to use reasonable care in keeping the property free of hazards. Of course, property owners owe a duty of care to other users of properties as well, e.g. tenants of rental properties.
Some of the more common ways in which people are injured due to a hazardous property condition include the following:
- Slip and fall accidents: Any kind of spill that creates a slippery condition on surfaces where pedestrians walk is a known hazard; for example, untreated ice on sidewalks in the winter is a condition that an owner should not ignore;
- Dangerous conditions: An example of a dangerous condition is a swimming pool that is left open and accessible to children; even if a child has not been invited onto the property, if a child finds its way to a swimming pool and is injured or drowns, the property owner can be liable;
- Defective security: If the lack of lighting or security can be linked to the commission of a crime on property, the owner or landlord can be liable to the victim of the crime for negligence;
- Inadequate maintenance: Inadequate maintenance of steps and staircases, both inside and outside structures, as well as balconies and decks, can be a source of fall accidents for which the property owner can be liable;
- Poor weather conditions: Winter storms can create hazards on sidewalks and in parking lots; of course, owners have a duty to address the hazards within a reasonable amount of time; however, pedestrians also need to exercise care as they move about after snow and ice storms. In some states the law says that a property owner is actually not liable in connection with the natural accumulation of snow and ice, in most cases, as long as the property owner didn’t interfere with or alter the accumulation. If no abnormal danger exists, a property owner may not be liable for accidents involving snow and ice.
- Dog bites: The presence of a potentially dangerous dog on a person’s property can create a risk of liability for a dog bite injury; or
- Inadequate lighting: Inadequate lighting can lead to liability for negligence in a number of ways; clearly it can be trip hazard if uneven sidewalks, or other hazardous conditions that create a risk of tripping are not lit adequately; however, inadequate lighting in parking lots and stairwells can be the basis for liability for crimes committed in those spaces; hotels can be liable if their guests are victimized in poorly lit areas of a hotel property.
For example, in the State of Florida the victim of a crime can recover money damages from the owner, operator or any other entity or person in control of commercial property if their negligence was a factor in creating the conditions for criminal activity to occur on their property. In Florida this is known as “negligent security.”
A property owner can have a duty to protect even an unknown person from the criminal conduct of a third-party if the property owner, lessee or operator controls any of the following:
- The instrumentality of the harm; or
- The premises upon which the crime is committed; or
- The person who committed the crime.
Negligent security law can mean, in some states, that If a perpetrator breaks into a building, or simply walks in through an unlocked door, and assaults or kills a person inside, that person might have a premises liability case against the building owner. The victim would have to show that the building owner did not take reasonable steps to secure the building. Of course, some states may have different laws in this regard.
Traditionally, a property owner or lessee was not liable for injuries to a person who was trespassing on the property, however in 1968 the Supreme Court of the State of California held that the status of the injured person as a person who was invited or licensed to be on the property or as a trespasser was not legally significant for purposes of premises liability. This case resulted in changes to premises liability law in many states other than California as well.
The law still varies from state to state, so if a person is injured because of a dangerous condition on property, they would probably want to consult an experienced personal injury lawyer for an analysis of the facts of their case.
While a property owner will be responsible when a dangerous condition exists on his or her private walkways, an owner usually is not responsible for injuries resulting from a fall or other type of accident on a public sidewalk located outside his or her property. This is especially true when this property is owned and maintained by a city or town. So this means that an average homeowner cannot be liable for trip and fall or slip and fall accidents on public sidewalks in front of their homes. The municipal or county government that is responsible for the sidewalks may well be liable, however. And governments can be liable for other areas where there could be hazards for pedestrians as well.
Some courts will impose liability on a business owner if business customers are the exclusive users of a public sidewalk.
Of course, a property owner who may be legally responsible for a person’s injuries might try to blame the person for the accident. They would claim that the person’s own negligence caused the accident, or at least contributed to it.
If a person has been involved in a pedestrian accident, they should do the following:
- Call the police immediately;
- Stay at the scene of the accident until first responders arrive;
- Gather names and phone numbers of any witnesses, if you can;
- Do not make any statements to anyone who might ask for information, including Insurance agents or brokers.
Do I Need a Lawyer to Sue a Property Owner?
Recovering damages for injuries caused by a negligent property owner can be complicated and challenging.. An experienced personal injury lawyer can help you understand the law in your state and how it applies to the facts of your situation. If you have been the victim of a crime inside a building or in the parking lot of a business, or if you have slipped and fallen because of hazards on a sidewalk, you should consult a personal injury lawyer. Or, if you are being sued as a property owner for injury to a user of your property, there are defenses available to you.
A personal injury lawyer will work to negotiate a settlement with an insurance company or represent you in court if a lawsuit becomes necessary. You are most likely to get the best possible result if you have a personal injury lawyer representing your interest.