Falls are unfortunate. But, just because you slip, trip, or fall on someone else’s property in Georgia does not automatically mean the owner or occupier of that property is liable for your injury. To determine if someone bears liability for your injury, the following factors must be considered.
Factor #1: Are You an Invitee, a Licensee, or a Trespasser?
One of the first steps to consider in evaluating a premises liability claim is the reason the injured person was on the property. Georgia law recognizes three different statuses for people who are present on someone’s property: (1) invitee; (2) licensee; and (3) trespasser.
An invitee is someone whose presence on the property benefits both the injured person and the owner or occupier of the property. One of the most common examples is a customer at a business like a grocery store, retail store, or a restaurant. A customer’s presence is a benefit to them, as well as to the business owner. An ordinary negligence standard applies to invitees. In other words, a defendant can be held liable of it fails to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises safe.
A licensee is someone who goes onto a property for their own interest or benefit. A social guest at a friend’s house is an example of a licensee. To establish liability if you are a licensee, you must show that the defendant’s conduct was willful or wanton. This is a high standard. To recover damages, you would basically have to show that the owner or occupier of the property intended to cause harm or knew about a dangerous condition on the property and failed to correct or warn about it.
A trespasser is someone who wrongfully enters someone else’s property. Someone who owns or occupies a property has a duty to avoid causing willful or wanton injury to a trespasser if the trespasser’s presence is known. However, there is no duty owed to a trespasser who is not known to be on the property because there is no duty to anticipate a trespasser’s presence.
Factor #2: Did the Defendant Know the Hazardous Condition Existed?
In order for a premises liability defendant to be held liable for an injury, you must be able to show that they had knowledge that the hazardous condition existed. This is referred to as notice. The notice can be actual or constructive.
Actual notice exists when there is an actual knowledge that the condition exists. Constructive notice exists when they should have known it existed. Constructive can be shown in a number of different ways. For example, if the condition existed for a long enough period of time that the owner should have discovered its presence, then constructive notice may be found to exist. Another common way to show constructive notice is by showing that the business lacked reasonable inspection procedures and failed to properly inspect the property to discover the condition’s presence.
An owner’s knowledge of a hazardous condition must be greater than then knowledge that the injured person possessed. If the injured party knew of the dangerous condition, then they will be considered to have had at least equal knowledge and a court may rule that they cannot pursue a claim for their injuries. For example, say you saw someone at a neighboring table in a restaurant spill a drink. Even if an employee was notified or noticed the spill, you would have equal knowledge of the condition of the spilled drink. So, if you slipped and fell in the spilled drink before an employee cleaned it up, you would be considered to have equal knowledge, and the court may conclude that the restaurant cannot be held responsible for your injuries.
Unlike a spilled drink, sometimes, hazards exist on a property for a long time. A condition present on a property for an extended period of time is known as a static condition. An example of a static condition may be a pothole in a parking lot. When a person has encountered a static condition before and has navigated the hazard without injury, then that person is considered to have equal knowledge of the hazard. This is known as the prior traversal rule. Because that person has the same knowledge of the hazard as the owner, he cannot recover for a later injury resulting from that hazard.
Gathering evidence that the owner had knowledge of a hazardous condition is crucial to proving any premises liability case. Evidence of knowledge could be surveillance video showing an employee improperly cleaning a spill, failing to place warning signs around the area, witness statements about how long a hazardous condition existed, or photos taken of the property showing the hazard was not easily visible.
Factor #3: Did Your Actions Contribute to the Accident Happening?
You are responsible for taking care of yourself in a reasonable manner while on someone else’s property. Your own negligence in causing (or, failing to avoid) an accident is known as contributory negligence. If you are negligent in paying attention and are injured, then your contributory negligence could outweigh the liability of the owner for the injury. In Georgia, an injured person is precluded from recovering damages if their negligence was equal to or greater than the defendant’s. In other words, if your negligence is found to be 50% or more responsible for your injuries, you cannot recover at all. If your negligence is less than 50%, then your damages would be reduced by the percentage of your negligence. So, if you were 49% at fault and you won $100,000 at trial, the court would reduce your award by 49%, and you would get $51,000.
When you see a hazardous condition, the reasonable, careful action is to avoid the hazard. Using reasonable care means paying attention to your surroundings. For example, if you are looking at your cell phone texting while walking down a grocery store aisle and trip over a display, then your own lack of care in watching your surroundings may be found to constitute contributory negligence. And of course, if you know of a dangerous condition, you may be found to have had equal knowledge of the dangerous condition and unable to recover damages from the defendant.
Medical Payments Coverage
It is important to point out that some property owners carry no fault medical payments coverage on their insurance that covers medical expenses (up to a set limit) for injuries occurring on their property. If you are injured on a property that is insured for medical payments coverage, you would be entitled to use that medical payments coverage to pay your bills without proving liability. Think of medical payments coverage like health insurance that applies to anyone to cover their medical bills up to a specific amount if they are injured on the property. This coverage would be available even if you were negligent in causing your own injuries.
Establishing the liability of a property owner for your injury after a slip, trip, or fall is rarely an easy matter. Consulting with an experienced Georgia personal injury attorney is an important step in determining whether you can receive compensation for your injury on someone else’s property. Contact The Champion Firm, P.C., today to see how we can help you.