Under California premises liability law, property owners and occupants have a duty of care to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition and to warn guests and visitors of lurking dangers that are not open and obvious.
This “duty of care” obligates people who own, possess, or control property to exercise reasonable care to:
- Maintain their property;
- Inspect the property;
- Repair any potentially dangerous conditions; and/or
- Give adequate warning of any dangerous condition(s). 1 2
A property owner or occupier who is negligent in failing to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition may be liable for any injuries sustained on the property. The injured party may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit against the property owner for damages.
Compensatory damages in a California premises liability lawsuit can include:
- Medical bills,
- Physical therapy,
- Continuing medical care,
- Lost wages,
- Lost earning capacity,
- Scarring or disfigurement, and
- Pain and suffering.
Our California personal injury attorneys discuss the following frequently asked questions about California premises liability lawsuits:
- 1. What are California’s premises liability laws?
- 2. Who can I sue if I am injured on someone else’s property?
- 3. What are some examples of premises liability accidents?
- 4. What dangerous conditions does the property owner have to warn about or fix?
- 5. What kind of award for damages is available in a premises liability lawsuit?
- 6. Do property owners owe a duty of care to trespassers?
- 7. Does homeowner’s insurance pay for accidents on the homeowner’s property?
- 8. Who is responsible for injuries on public property or in government buildings?
California’s premises liability laws are based on negligence. Under California Civil Code 1714(a):
“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person…”
In a premises liability case, the factual elements of the claim require the plaintiff to prove that he or she was harmed because of the way the defendant managed the property. Specifically, under California law the plaintiff must prove:
- The defendant owned, leased, occupied, or controlled the property;
- The defendant was negligent in the use or maintenance of the property;
- The plaintiff was harmed; and
- The defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s harm.3
Example: Tanya stays at a hotel for a business trip and gets bitten by bedbugs. She develops a severe skin reaction that must be treated with steroids and antibiotics. It turns out the hotel had received complaints about bedbugs from previous guests, but failed to investigate or take corrective action.
In a bedbug injury lawsuit, Tanya is likely to recover damages for her medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, and possibly punitive damages.
The “duty of care” for a property owner is based on what a reasonable property owner would do under similar circumstances. In determining whether or not the defendant breached the duty of care, the jury can consider, among other factors, the following:
- The location of the property;
- The likelihood that someone would come onto the property in the same way as the plaintiff;
- The likelihood of an injury;
- The probable seriousness of such an injury;
- Whether the owner knew of or should have known of the condition;
- The burden of reducing or avoiding the risk; and
- The owner’s degree of control over the risk-creating condition.4
Example: Tom’s home had stairs leading up to a porch. The wood on the stairs was starting to rot. Tom always skipped the second step because he was afraid the step would break if it was stepped on. Tom planned to repair the steps in a couple of weeks when his carpenter uncle was coming for a visit.
Tom ordered a pizza for dinner from a local pizza place. Marco, the delivery driver, walked up the steps to deliver the pizza. However, when Marco put his foot on the second step, the wood fell through and Marco fell down, breaking his shoulder.
In a staircase injury lawsuit, Tom would probably be liable for damages because Tom knew about the bad step, was aware the bad stairs could cause an injury, had control over the steps, and understood the stairs needed replacing.
If you are injured on someone else’s property, you can generally sue the individual or company who
- occupies, or
- controls the property.
The party responsible does not need to be someone who owns, possesses, and controls the property. Control alone is sufficient for liability.5
The person responsible for the property may depend on the type of property. There may also be multiple parties that share responsibility for the property.
The property owner or possessor generally cannot delegate away the duty to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition. If the property owner hires an independent contractor to fix an unsafe condition and that contractor negligently fails to make the condition safe, the property owner is still responsible for the condition of the property. If the unsafe condition results in an injury, the property owner could still be liable for damages.6
Similarly, if an employee is negligent in failing to fix a hazardous condition or warn the employer about dangers on the property, the employer may be liable for the employee’s negligence. Under California’s respondeat superior laws, the principal is liable for the negligence of the agent. An employer or business is vicariously liable for the employee’s negligence that occurs within the scope of employment.7
In a premises liability lawsuit, the defendant(s) may include a:
- Business owner;
- Tenant or renter;
- Property management company;
- Parent company;
- Retail center;
- Store; or
- Employee of one of the above.
Example: Sean is a clerk at Sam’s Grocery. Sean sees that someone knocked some grapes onto the grown, which could cause an accident. Sean is in a hurry and doesn’t tell anyone about the grapes because he is going home soon.
A customer slips on the grapes and falls, breaking a hip. The customer files a lawsuit against Sam’s Grocery for damages. Sam’s Grocery claims it never knew about the grapes and Sean should be responsible because he didn’t clean them up. However, Sam’s Grocery is liable to the customer for the employee’s negligence. The store is also ultimately responsible for keeping the store in a reasonably safe condition.
Premises liability accidents can occur in just about any type of property, include government property, parks, office buildings, stores and malls, parking lots, apartments, and private homes. Some of the more common examples of premises liability accidents are described below.
Slip and fall accidents are some of the most common premises liability accidents in California. Common causes of slip and fall liability in California include:
- Spills or leaks,
- Loose carpeting,
- Uneven floors,
- Uncovered cables and cords,
- Broken or missing railings,
- Failure to close off construction sites, and
- Failure to put up warning signs about known hazards.
Example: Arthur is working out at Neighborhood Gym. Arthur is walking over to the free weights when he trips on a torn piece of carpet and hits his head on a barbell, suffering a catastrophic head injury. Neighborhood Gym may be liable for Arthur’s fitness center injury because the torn carpet was a trip hazard.
Waterparks and Amusement Parks in California can be the source of many types of premises liability lawsuits. These parks have large crowds passing through every day and owe a duty of care to the visitors to make sure the parks are safe.
Amusement park companies have a duty to provide a safe environment for customers, including making sure roller coasters are safe for all riders. Amusement park owners are also responsible for maintaining the property, including the
- line-up areas,
- food service areas, and even
- parking lots.
When a visitor is injured in an amusement park, the park may be liable for damages.
Water parks can present additional dangers to patrons. At a water park, most of the customers are barefoot children. A reasonable water park owner should be aware of the potential accidents that can occur in a water park and take steps to prevent any injuries. When someone is injured in a water park or water slide accident, the park owners should be liable for failing to provide a safe environment for park goers.
Construction sites often have a number of potential hazards for anyone in the construction zone. Construction sites have a number of safety regulations for employees to help avoid workplace (on-the-job) injuries. However, property owners still have a duty of care to others on the property, as well as people who were off the property but are still within a zone of potential danger.
Property owners can also be liable for accidents that occur just off the property but are caused by hazardous conditions within the property.8
Construction site accidents may include a number of risks to passersby or visitors. Visitors or customers to store or office buildings may end up walking into a construction area without even knowing it. Part of the duty of a property owner may include povidone warnings or barriers to prevent people from walking into dangerous areas. Construction site accident can include:
Accidents on stairs can be caused by broken steps, rotted wood, and loose handrails. When someone is injured in a dangerous stairway accident, the property owner may be liable for the victim’s damages.
Keeping the property in a safe condition includes making stair repairs, fixing any broken steps, and making sure it is safe for someone to walk up and down the stairs. If someone falls because of broken stairs or dangerous conditions in the stairway, the property owner may be liable to the victim’s damages.
Injuries caused by animals can be part of premises liability. This includes situations where a dangerous property condition caused the animal to harm a person.
Example: Michelle is riding a horse on Sandy’s Day Ride Farm. On the property, there is an old septic tank area that has since been abandoned. Sandy generally tells people to avoid the area because there are a few sinkholes but she fails to warn Michelle.
While riding, Michelle canters over by the old septic tank area when the horse’s front hoof falls through a hole and Michelle falls off the horse, suffering a horseback riding injury. Michelle may have a claim against the property owner of Sandy’s Day Ride Farm because the property owners were aware of the dangerous conditions and did not warn Michelle of the dangers.
Another common area of injuries on private property involves dog bite injuries. However, most dog bite injury cases are covered by specific laws which apply to dog bite injury laws in California. A homeowner may be negligent in securing a dog on their property but the personal injury case will generally apply ”strict liability” for most dog bite injuries.9
Anyone injured in an elevator accident can file a lawsuit against those responsible for causing the accident. Generally, elevator accidents are the responsibility of the property owner. However, elevator accidents may also fall under products liability if the manufacturer or seller put out a faulty product.
Property owners with an elevator on the property, including office buildings or apartments, are responsible for making sure the elevators are operating in a safe manner. If the elevators are not safe, the property owner is responsible for fixing the elevator and warning others about the risks. Failure to do this can make the property owner liable for any accidents and injuries.
Many people forget about all the accidents that can happen in the home. According to one study, more accidents happen at home than anywhere else.10
Just as a home accident can occur in one’s own home, they may be just as likely when visiting another person’s home. Accidents in the home can include:
- Burn injuries,
- Electric shock,
- Inhalation injuries,
- Chemical injuries,
- Falling trees and limbs,
- Domestic worker injuries,
- Deck and balcony collapses,
- Poisoning, and
- Slip and falls.
If an accident occurred in someone else’s home and the occupier or homeowner may be responsible. If the homeowner does not keep the property in a reasonably safe condition and a visitor is injured, the homeowner is generally liable for damages. Also, a landlord may be liable for allowing unsafe conditions at a rental property.
Example: Aaden is hosting poker night in his basement for a group of co-workers. Benny is new to the group and has never been to Aaden’s home before. During a break in the games, Benny goes outside to smoke. Benny steps out onto Aidan’s back porch in the dark and falls to the ground, breaking his leg.
Aaden is in the middle of putting in a new back porch and there are many gaps where the wood is to be replaced. Aaden never warned Benny about the back porch dangers. Aaden may be liable to Benny for damages because of the known hazard.
Property owners have an affirmative duty to fix dangerous conditions or warn individuals about those hazards. A property owner cannot avoid liability just by claiming they did not know about the dangerous conditions. The owner or occupier is under a duty to exercise ordinary care in maintaining the property to avoid exposing others to an unreasonable risk of harm.
The property owner must use reasonable care to discover any unsafe conditions. Evidence of whether a property owner knew or should have known about the condition can be shown by:
- The obviousness of the hazard,
- Complaints about the dangerous conditions,
- Amount of time that the dangerous condition existed,
- Prior injuries caused by the dangerous condition, and
- Poor attempts to fix the hazard.
In general, property owners may not be liable for damages caused by a “minor, trivial, or insignificant defect,” on the property. What may be considered a minor defect may depend on the type of defect and injuries.11
The types of dangerous conditions a property owner is responsible depend on the type of property. One example would be a grocery store with spilled food or liquid on the floor. This creates an unreasonable slip and fall hazard. A grocery store is responsible for discovering the spilled food and warning customers about the spill or cleaning up the spill.
What type of notice or warning does a property owner need to have?
When a property owner cannot fix the dangerous condition, a reasonable property owner would generally put up a notice or warning of the hazard. This puts others on notice that a potentially dangerous condition exists so they can avoid it or take the necessary precautions.
The type of warning or notice required depends on the dangerous condition and types of people who may be injured. A warning should be able to give others fair warning of the location of the dangerous condition and type of danger. The notice should also be visible or obvious enough that others would be aware of the danger before getting into a situation where they could be harmed.
Example: Brad walked into an office building where he was going to meet with his accountant. When he walked into the front door, there was a “Caution Wet Floor” sign. Brad did not see any sign of water anywhere.
Brad stopped in to use the bathroom around the corner before going to his appointment. When Brad walked into the bathroom, he slipped on the wet floor, caused by a broken pipe, and hit his head.
The property owner may be liable because a warning sign at the front of a building may not give a visitor proper notice that the dangerous condition is in a bathroom around the corner.
In a premises liability lawsuit, the plaintiff can seek damages for their financial and non-economic losses caused by the accident. Economic damages may include:
- Medical bills,
- Future medical treatment,
- Lost wages,
- Lost earning capacity, and
- Property damage.
Noneconomic damages compensate the injury victim for losses that do not have a set dollar value. This includes damages for:
- Loss of a limb, and
- Pain and suffering.
In some cases, a plaintiff may be entitled to punitive damages in a California personal injury lawsuit. However, punitive damages are rare in these types of cases and may require showing proving:
- The defendant’s recklessness resulted in catastrophic injuries or wrongful death,
- The defendant intentionally destroyed evidence of liability, or
- The defendant intentionally caused the accident or injury.
If the victim is killed in a premises liability accident, the surviving family members may have a claim for damages against the property owner. Wrongful death damages can include (but are not limited to):
- Burial expenses,
- Funeral costs,
- Support the deceased would have earned as income, and
- Compensation for the loss of support and companionship. CACI 3921
In California, the duty a property owner has to a trespasser may depend on the situation and the cause of the injury. In some states, the duty owed depends on what status the individual has while on the property. However, California no longer categorizes duty based on the following status:
- Licensee, or
Instead, the jury would consider all relevant factors to decide whether the property owner fails to use reasonable care to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition. This includes:
- The location of the property;
- The likelihood that a trespasser would come onto the property;
- The likelihood and seriousness of an injury.12
Example: Austin has lived in his home in Los Feliz for 20 years. In that time, Austin has never known of anyone coming into his backyard except for friends and family. Austin is building a shed in his backyard on the weekends to store tools. Austin is not finished and a wall still needs to be secured.
While Austin is at work, Bert peeks over Austin’s fence and sees the new shed. Bert climbs over the fence to look in the shed for something to steal. When Bert sees the shed is empty, he kicks the wall out of frustration and the wall collapses, injuring Bert.
Austin may not be liable to Bert because Austin did not have any reason to believe that a trespasser would come onto the property. Austin also may not have expected the wall to fall unless it was pushed.
Compare that example to the following:
Example: Austin is building a treehouse in his backyard for his nieces. The tree house still needs some work and is not safe for anyone to play on. When his nieces are visiting, Austin blocks off access to the treehouse so they will not be injured during its construction.
Lately, Austin has come home and noticed the neighborhood kids in his backyard trying to climb up to the treehouse. Austin yells at them to leave and they run off. This has happened 3 times in the past month.
When Austin is at work, the neighborhood kid Bobby sneaks into the backyard. Bobby climbs up the ladder to the treehouse. While playing in the treehouse, Bobby steps on an unsecured board which causes him to lose his balance and fall, suffering a broken arm.
In this case, a jury may find that Austin was liable. Austin was aware that people were trespassing on his property. Austin was aware the treehouse was unsafe because he blocked off access when his nieces were visiting. A reasonable homeowner may have blocked off access to the tree house until construction was complete or warned others that the tree house was dangerous.
Homeowner’s insurance policies may cover many types of bodily injuries that occur on the homeowner’s property. However, just because a homeowner has insurance does not mean the insurance company will pay all or any of the claim.
Homeowners should review their policies to understand what is covered and what is not covered. Insurance policies often have a number of exclusions for what types of accidents or injuries are not included. Examples of homeowner’s insurance exclusions may include:
- Dog bite injuries for certain dog breeds;
- Intentional injuries;
- Damages from neglect;
- Injuries caused by poor workmanship;
- Injuries caused by defective maintenance or repair; or
- Trampoline injuries.
Insurance policies may also require the policyholder to take steps to mitigate damages and notify the insurance company of the accident or injury within a certain period of time.
Even if the insurance policy does provide coverage for the injury, the limits may not be enough to cover the full damage. For example, a homeowner’s policy may have $100,000 in personal liability insurance. If someone suffers a permanent injury, their damages for lifetime medical care and loss of income could be in the millions of dollars. The homeowner may be personally liable for damages in excess of the liability coverage.
Insurance companies generally have a duty to defend and indemnify policyholders. However, the insurer may try and avoid paying damages in bad faith or claim the type of injury does not fall within the policy. The insured may have to file a lawsuit against the insurance company for damages to cover any payments to the injured party and costs of defending the lawsuit against the other party.13
Example: Tommy is at a waterpark and sees the line on his favorite ride is very short. Tommy runs to the slide even though there are multiple “no running signs.” Tommy trips on some torn rubber flooring and falls, hitting his head on the ground.
Under premises liability, the park may be liable for hazardous conditions, including torn flooring. However, Tommy may also be partially responsible for running when there were clear signs against running. Tommy’s damages may be reduced by his own portion of fault.
The state, city, county, or federal government may be liable for injuries that occur on government property. When the government owns or controls the property, the government may be liable for damages that are caused by a dangerous condition on the property. However, premises liability claims against public entities have a different standard.
Public entities may also have a different statute of limitations or timeline to file a claim. Public entities may have a notice requirement before a government agency or employee can be sued for a personal injury accident.
Some personal injury claims against a government agency must be commenced within 6 months of the injury in California.14 Talk to your attorney as soon as possible about your claim to make sure the claim is filed in time or you may risk having your claim denied.
In order to prove the public entity was liable for a dangerous condition on the property, the plaintiff has to show:
- The property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury;
- The injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition;
- The dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred; and either:
- A negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition; or
- The public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition and sufficient time to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.15
The government agency may be liable through employee negligence or notice of the dangerous condition.16
Notice of the dangerous condition can be established by showing the dangerous condition existed for a period of time and of an obvious nature that the public entity should have discovered the condition and its dangerous character. This includes consideration of:
- Whether the condition would have been discovered by a reasonably adequate inspection system; and
- Whether the public entity had such an inspection system and did not discover the condition.17
Example: Errol works for the San Berdoo Parks Department. Errol checks the park benches once a week as part of his duties. Errol checks a bench and finds a loose board. Errol runs to his truck to get a sign to warn people about sitting on the broken bench.
However, as soon as Errol leaves, Candice sits on the bench. The loose board comes up and Candice falls on the ground, breaking her wrist.
In this situation, the public entity employee had discovered the condition and its dangerous character. However, the public entity may not have had sufficient time to take measures to protect against the dangerous condition. Whether Errol was negligent may be a question for the jury to decide.
Injured on someone else’s property in California? Call us for help…
For questions about how you filing a claim for damages caused by dangerous property conditions or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our skilled personal injury attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group. Our law firm of personal injury lawyers offers free consultations and legal advice.
Our premises liability attorneys have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
- California Civil Code Section 1714(a), (“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person…”)
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1001. Premises Liability — Basic Duty of Care (“A person who owns, leases, occupies, or controls property is negligent if he or she fails to use reasonable care to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition. A property owner must use reasonable care to discover any unsafe conditions and to repair, replace, or give adequate warning of anything that could be reasonably expected to harm others.”)
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1000. Premises Liability — Essential Factual Elements.
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1001, see footnote 1 above.
- Alcaraz v. Vece (1997) 14 Cal.4th 1149, 1162 (“‘Property owners are liable for injuries on land they own, possess, or control.’ But . . . the phrase ‘own, possess, or control’ is stated in the alternative. A defendant need not own, possess and control property in order to be held liable; control alone is sufficient.”)
- See Brown v. George Pepperdine Foundation (1943) 23 Cal.2d 256, 260 (“The duty which a possessor of land owes to others to put and maintain it in reasonably safe condition is nondelegable. If an independent contractor, no matter how carefully selected, is employed to perform it, the possessor is answerable for harm caused by the negligent failure of his contractor to put or maintain the buildings and structures in reasonably safe condition, irrespective of whether the contractor’s negligence lies in his incompetence, carelessness, inattention or delay.”)
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3701 — Tort Liability Asserted Against Principal. See also Mary M. v. City of Los Angeles (1991) 54 Cal.3d 202.
- Annocki v. Peterson Enterprises, LLC (2014) 232 Cal.App.4th 32, 38 (“A landowner’s duty of care to avoid exposing others to a risk of injury is not limited to injuries that occur on premises owned or controlled by the landowner. Rather, the duty of care encompasses a duty to avoid exposing persons to risks of injury that occur off site if the landowner’s property is maintained in such a manner as to expose persons to an unreasonable risk of injury offsite.”)
- California Civil Code § 3342(a) (“The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness. A person is lawfully upon the private property of such owner within the meaning of this section when he is on such property in the performance of any duty imposed upon him by the laws of this state or by the laws or postal regulations of the United States, or when he is on such property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner.”)
- The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Facts & Figures in Home Safety.
- Ann M. v. Paciﬁc Plaza Shopping Center (1993) 6 Cal.4th 666, 674 (“In this state, duties are no longer imposed on an occupier of land solely on the basis of rigid classiﬁcations of trespasser, licensee, and invitee. The purpose of plaintiff’s presence on the land is not determinative. We have recognized, however, that this purpose may have some bearing upon the liability issue. This purpose therefore must be considered along with other factors weighing for and against the imposition of a duty on the landowner.”)
- Beauchamp v. Los Gatos Golf Course (1969) 273 Cal.App.2d 20, 25 (“In the minds of the jury, whether a possessor of the premises has acted as a reasonable man toward a plaintiff, in view of the probability of injury to him, will tend to involve the circumstances under which he came upon defendant’s land; and the probability of exposure of plaintiff and others of his class to the risk of injury; as well as whether the condition itself presented an unreasonable risk of harm, in view of the foreseeable use of the property.”
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 2300 — Breach of Contractual Duty to Pay a Covered Claim.
- See e.g., CCP § 341.
- California Government Code 835 — Liability of Public Entities.
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 1100 — Dangerous Condition on Public Property.
- California Government Code 835.2.