California’s premises liability law says that property owners owe a duty of care (1) to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition, and (2) to warn guests and visitors of lurking dangers that may not already be open and obvious.
Here are five key things to know:
- A property owner/occupier who is negligent in keeping the premises reasonably safe may be liable for injuries sustained on the property.
- Common accidents involving premises liability are slip and falls, drownings, dog bites, and electrocutions.
- Victims may be eligible for medical bills, lost wages, lost earning capacity, and pain and suffering.
- Families of victims who died in the accident can also seek loss of support and funeral expenses.
- Some insurance policies cover damages in premises liability lawsuits depending on the case.
Here at Shouse Law Group, we have a long track record of winning substantial monetary settlements for injury victims harmed by a property owner’s negligence. In this article, our California premises liability attorneys discuss:
- 1. California’s premises liability laws
- 2. Whom can I sue?
- 3. Common premises liability accidents
- 4. Property owners’ duties re. dangerous conditions
- 5. What money can I get?
- 6. Injuries to trespassers
- 7. Does homeowner’s insurance cover accidents?
- 8. Injuries on public property or government buildings
- 9. Deadline to file suit
- Additional resources
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…1
In a premises liability cause of action, we must prove that you were harmed because of the negligent way the defendant managed the property.2 Specifically, under California law we must prove:
- The defendant owned, leased, occupied, or controlled the property;
- The defendant breached their “duty of care” in the use or maintenance of the property;
- You were harmed; and
- The defendant’s breach of their “duty of care” was a substantial factor in causing your harm.3
The “duty of care” for a property owner is based on what a reasonable property owner would do under similar circumstances.4
If you are injured on someone else’s property, we can generally sue the individual or company who owns, leases, occupies, or controls (“possesses”) the property.5 This typically includes:
- Business owners and parent companies;
- Property management companies; and/or
- Employees of one of the above.
Property owners or possessors generally cannot delegate away the duty to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition.6 If they hire an employee or an independent contractor to fix a hazard that they then fail to fix, the property owner is still responsible for the condition of the property.7
In California, the accident cases we handle most often are:
- Slip and falls, often caused by spills, loose carpeting, uneven floors, or missing railings on stairs.
- Water parks and amusement park accidents, such as drowning or falling from rides.
- Construction site accidents, especially due to electric shocks, cranes, or falling off roofs, scaffolding, or ladders.8
- Dog bite injuries, which are among the easier cases to win because California law holds dog owners strictly liable, which is easier to prove than negligence.9
- Elevator injuries, which typically involve suing the manufacturer for strict products liability.
- Food poisoning that stemmed from poor food handling at restaurants, supermarkets, wholesalers, or factories.
- Home accidents, which include everything from burns and chemical injuries to falling tree limbs and deck and balcony collapses.10
Property owners have an affirmative duty to fix dangerous conditions or warn you about them. They cannot avoid liability just by claiming they did not know about the dangerous conditions.
When property owners cannot fix a dangerous condition, they should post a notice. It should be visible enough to make you aware of the hazard before you can get into a situation where you could be harmed.11
In a premises liability lawsuit, we seek compensatory damages for your economic 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.
Non-economic damages compensate you for losses that do not have a set dollar value, such as:
- Loss of a limb, and
- Pain and suffering.
If the victim is killed in a premises liability accident, the surviving family members may have a wrongful death claim against the property owner for:
- Burial expenses,
- Funeral costs,
- Support the deceased would have earned as income, and
- Compensation for the loss of support and companionship.
In our experience, punitive damages are rare in California personal injury lawsuits unless we can show that the defendant:
- Acted with recklessness that resulted in catastrophic injuries or wrongful death,
- Intentionally destroyed evidence of liability, or
- Intentionally caused the accident or injury.
When a trespasser gets injured in California, the property owner could be liable if they failed to use reasonable care to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition. In these cases, juries consider all relevant factors, such as:
- The location of the property;
- The likelihood that a trespasser would come onto the property;
- The likelihood and seriousness of an injury.12
Example: A vagrant trespasses onto Austin’s property to steal from a shed Austin is building, which then collapses on the vagrant. Austin may not be liable because he did not have any reason to believe that a trespasser would come onto the property.
Compare that example to the following:
Example: Austin is building a treehouse that he knows neighborhood kids visit in secret. If a child gets injured, a jury may find that Austin was liable. A reasonable homeowner may have blocked off access to the treehouse until construction was complete.
Homeowner’s insurance policies cover many types of bodily injuries (up to the policy limits) that occur on the homeowner’s property. However, insurance policies often have a number of exclusions for what types of accidents or injuries are not included. Examples 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.13
In order to prove a public entity in California was liable for a dangerous condition on their property, we have to show:
- The property was in a dangerous condition at the time of your injury;
- Your injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition;
- The dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of your kind of injury; and either:
- A negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of their employment created the dangerous condition;14 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
We can establish that the government had notice of the dangerous condition by showing that it existed for a period of time and was of an obvious nature that the public entity should have discovered the condition and its dangerous character. A jury would consider:
- 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.16
Example: Parks Department employee Errol finds a defective bench and runs to get a warning sign. Though as soon as Errol leaves, Candice sits on the bench and falls. Here, the public entity may not have had sufficient time to take protective measures. Whether Errol was negligent may be up to a jury to decide.
The vast majority of personal injury cases in California have a statute of limitations of two years after your accident. Though if the injury occurred on government property, the time limit to sue can be as short as six months.17
A California personal injury lawyer can determine which statute of limitation applies in your case.
For more information, refer to the following:
- Five keys to success for new landlords in California – Helpful article by the California Apartment Association.
- How to find out who owns a property in California – Guide provided by a commercial real estate broker software company.
- California Building Maintenance Companies – List compiled by Crunchbase.
- Property maintenance services: The complete checklist and guide – Detailed information provided by a property management software company.
- Civil complaint for premises liability – Form provided by the California Courts Self-Help Guide.
- California Civil Code Section 1714(a); see, for example, Dix v. Live Nation Entertainment, Inc. (2020) 56 Cal. App. 5th 590.
- 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.”); see Staats v. Vintner’s Golf Club, LLC (2018) 25 Cal.App.5th 826.
- CACI 1000. See Brooks v. Eugene Burger Management Corp. (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 1611; Kesner v. Superior Court (2016) 1 Cal.5th 1132; Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108.
- CACI)1001. Cadam v. Somerset Gardens Townhouse HOA (2011) 200 Cal.App.4th 383; Taylor v. Trimble (2017) 13 Cal.App.5th 934; Delgado v. American Multi-Cinema, Inc. (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 1403.
- Alcaraz v. Vece (1997) 14 Cal.4th 1149.
- See Brown v. George Pepperdine Foundation (1943) 23 Cal.2d 256.
- California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 3701. 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.
- California Civil Code § 3342(a).
- 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.
- Beauchamp v. Los Gatos Golf Course (1969) 273 Cal.App.2d 20. California no longer categorizes a property owner’s duty based on whether you are an invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser.
- CACI 2300. Insurance companies generally have a duty to defend and indemnify policyholders. However, the insurer might try to avoid paying damages in bad faith or claim the type of injury does not fall within the policy.
- CACI 1100.
- California Government Code 835.
- GC 835.2.
- See for example, CCP § 341.