Articles Posted in Premises Liability

When a person slips and falls in an office building, it is important to ascertain who may be liable.  Multiple tenants, a property management company, building owners, and even some vendors contracted to do certain work may have some responsibility.  Liability may depend in part on the leases, contracts, and business arrangements among the potential defendants.  In a recent case, a plaintiff challenged summary judgment in favor of two defendants.

The plaintiff slipped and fell down some stairs outside her acupuncturist’s office.  The acupuncturist’s office was in a rented room on the second floor of a house with multiple tenants.  The written lease was expired, and named just one tenant. The named tenant had moved out, and one of the other tenants collected rent from the others.

The patient sued the acupuncturist, the named tenant, the building’s owners, and other defendants for damages related to her injuries from the fall.  The trial court found the acupuncturist and the named tenant did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care with respect to the stairs in the common area.  The court granted summary judgment in favor of those defendants.  The plaintiff appealed.

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Generally, in a Washington premises liability case, a landowner may be held liable for injuries on the land if he or she has not given exclusive control of the premises to a lessee.  If, however, the lease requires the landlord to repair the premises, then the landlord may be held liable for his or her own negligence.

The Washington Supreme Court (the “Court”) was recently asked to determine if a landlord was liable for injuries occurring in an area where the tenant had exclusive possession, but where the lease only granted the tenant priority use and the landlord was obligated to maintain and repair the premises.

The plaintiff was severely injured when a passenger ramp at the Port of Bellingham (the “Port”) fell. She worked for the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS). The State of Alaska has leased the Bellingham Cruise Terminal (BCT) from the Port of Bellingham for many years.  Although AMHS has exclusive use of some areas under the lease, the lease gives AMHS only priority use of parking spaces and the marine facilities, including the passenger ramp.  Under the lease, the Port was solely responsible for keeping the premises “in good repair and tenantable condition.”  The lease requires the Port to keep the premises “in good and substantial repair and condition.”   The Port is to “maintain the leased premises free of structural or mechanical hazards.”

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Washington personal injury cases generally hinge on proving the defendant’s negligence.  A recent case, however, turned on contract law.  In this unusual case, the court had to determine if a defendant was bound by its agreement to accept responsibility for the condition of a parking lot after learning the accident did not occur on its property.

According to the appeal court’s opinion, the plaintiff was injured when he hit a pothole while riding his bicycle in a parking lot.  He notified the realty company that owned the shopping complex property and Wal-Mart, which had a store in the shopping center.

The realty company sent a letter to Wal-Mart stating Wal-Mart was responsible for maintaining the parking lot.  The plaintiff subsequently filed a claim with Wal-Mart.  Wal-Mart denied the claim, stating its investigation found no negligence on Wal-Mart’s part.

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Sometimes an accident victim does not know the exact cause of the accident.  They may not have seen what happened, or in some cases, the injuries may cause a loss of memory.  A lack of memory can make a case very difficult, but Washington personal injury attorneys know that the difficulty may be overcome if there is other evidence showing the defendant’s liability.

A lack of memory was at issue in a recent case.  The plaintiff suffered a head injury after falling while leaving a store.  She filed suit against the tenant and the landlord of the store for failing to maintain safe premises.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, and the plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff could not remember what caused her to lose her footing.  The appeals court viewed the evidence in favor of the plaintiff.  According to the record, there were three concrete steps, measuring 76 inches across the top step.  There was a 37-inch wide plywood ramp over the stairs for wheelchair use.  The ramp had a raised edge on either side, about an inch wide and two inches high.  There were no handrails.

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Property owners may be liable for injuries that result from a dangerous condition on their property.  The duty a property owner owes to a person on his or her property regarding a dangerous condition of the property often turns on the status of the injured person.  A landowner has different obligations to business invitees, licensees, and trespassers.  A Washington appeals court recently considered whether a landowner can be liable in a Washington premises liability case if the dangerous condition is actually on someone else’s property.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, an eight-year-old girl drowned while camping as part of a youth group.  The landowner allowed the group to camp on the property for free for several years.  The property was near a lake, and four counselors took 15 children swimming at a cove on the lake.  To get to the cove, the group walked from the campsite across property owned by the federal government.  The appeals court described the victim as a “non-swimmer.” According to the opinion, the counselors lost track of her while caring for another child.  A search and rescue team found her body the next day.

The victim’s estate sued the landowners, alleging they had a duty to warn the child about the dangerous conditions in the cove.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding they did not have a duty to warn about conditions on property they did not own.  The estate appealed.

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Many people think that a landowner is responsible for injuries that occur upon his or her property.  Landowners are often liable, but Washington premises liability attorneys know that it is the possessor of the land who generally has responsibility for the condition of the premises.  This means that a tenant, rather than the landowner, may have responsibility for the conditions of the property, as seen in a recent case.

The plaintiff was leaving her boyfriend’s home when she realized she forgot something.  When she stepped on the step leading up to the deck, it broke.  She was injured when her foot went through the broken board.

The property was a single family residence, but there was a mother-in-law unit with a separate entry and its own backyard and patio.  The plaintiff’s boyfriend rented the main unit, and other tenants rented the mother-in-law unit on a separate lease.  There was a shared carport area, but the deck where the plaintiff fell was attached to the main house and was for use only by the tenants of the main house.

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The duty of care a landowner owes to a person on his or her property depends on the person’s status as either an invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser.  The highest standard of care is owed to an invitee.  A business invitee is a person invited to come onto or remain on the property for purposes directly or indirectly related to his or her business dealings with the person in possession of the land.  A licensee is a person who is allowed to enter or remain on the property because of the possessor’s consent.  A licensee can be someone who is on the property for their own purposes or a social guest.  Since the duty owed to a person is based on their status, a Washington premises liability case may turn on their status, as seen in a recent case.

The plaintiff worked as an aesthetician at a plastic surgery office.  One of the defendants had been the plaintiff’s client for several years.  The plaintiff arranged to visit the defendant at her home.  After planning the visit, but before the visit occurred, the plaintiff offered to bring the defendant some scar cream.

The plaintiff stayed at the defendants’ home for about a half hour.  While there, she met members of the family, took a tour of the home, and talked with the defendant.  The defendant paid the plaintiff for the scar cream while she was there. As the plaintiff left, she opened the gate and stepped backwards onto the landing.  She fell backwards.

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Personal injury cases often hinge on why and how the injury occurred.  Although the victim and other eyewitnesses can testify to what happened, Washington personal injury attorneys know that an expert is often needed to explain how and why the incident happened.  An expert may only testify within the area of his or her qualifications, however.  Furthermore, the expert’s opinions must have an adequate foundation.  The court has discretion in determining whether an expert may testify.

A Washington appeals court recently considered  whether an expert was qualified in the area of his opinions and whether he laid an adequate foundation for those opinions.  The plaintiff was injured when the chair in which he was sitting on the deck of the defendant pizza restaurant broke where the arm attached to the seat.

The assistant manager on duty at the time examined the arms to ensure they were stable when setting up the deck.  He had only identified two chairs as being unacceptable in the past 11 years.  He was not aware of any other incidents when chairs at the restaurant broke.

Many escalators are used each day, and they generally function as expected.  They require appropriate maintenance and service to do so, however.  When they are riding an escalator, people can be seriously injured.  Washington premises liability attorneys know that an owner that fails to properly maintain escalator equipment may be liable for the resulting injuries. In fact, in Washington, the owner or operator of an escalator has the heightened duty of care of a common carrier. A Washington appeals court recently considered a case in which the court dismissed a personal injury case involving an escalator.

The plaintiffs were injured when an escalator step jammed.  The escalator was in a mall and right outside a department store.  Witnesses stated they heard a screeching noise.  The steps then began piling up, and the escalator collapsed on itself. The escalator’s fail-safe mechanisms did not activate to stop the escalator.

The plaintiffs sued the department store owner and the owners of the mall and escalator.  The department store contracted with an elevator maintenance company for service and maintenance of the escalator.

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Generally, a property owner is liable for injuries to its customers only if it has actual or constructive notice of the hazardous condition that resulted in the injury.  Washington law recognizes an exception, however, when the nature of the business and its operational methods make the existence of unsafe conditions reasonably foreseeable.  This exception, set forth in Pimentel v. Roundup Company, is known as the Pimentel or self-service exception because it applies to self-service operations.  “Self-service” simply means that the customers handle the goods and serve themselves.

There are three factors that must be met for the Pimentel exception to apply.  First, the injury must occur in a self-service area.  Second, the hazardous condition that caused the injury must also be in the self-service area.  Finally, the businesss mode of operation must inherently create a hazardous condition that is reasonably foreseeable.

The Pimentel exception commonly arises in a slip and fall context.  In a recent unpublished case, however, the Washington Court of Appeals applied it in an unusual context.  In Craig v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the exception was applied when a man was bitten by a rattlesnake in a Wal-Mart garden center.

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