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Businesses Open to the Public Must Keep Premises Reasonably Safe

WHAT IS A BUSINESS OWNER’S BASIC DUTY TO MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC?

Owners and operators of businesses which open their premises to the public have a legal duty to keep the premises reasonably free from dangerous conditions. This duty includes:

1. Inspecting the premises on a regular basis, with an eye to identifying and preventing hazardous conditions.

2. Exercising reasonable, “ordinary care” to prevent customers (and other third parties) from being exposed to hazards. Among other things, this requires keeping all public parts of the premises (including aisles, passageways and public restrooms) in a reasonably clean and safe condition.

3.  Courts have held that certain business owners and operators (specifically, restaurants) must take reasonable steps to assist customers (or other third parties) who become injured or in need of medical attention while on the premises.

Following these steps will help business owners avoid liability, but even this cannot immunize a property owner against lawsuits or liability. The business owner/operator has an affirmative duty to inspect and maintain the premises in reasonably safe condition and to eliminate or mitigate hazardous conditions.

WHEN DOES THE DUTY BEGIN, AND WHEN DOES LIABILITY ATTACH?

In order for liability to attach, a person must suffer injury as a result of a hazardous condition, and the business or property owner* must have actual or constructive knowledge of the condition.

Actual knowledge is fairly simple to identify: “actual knowledge” means an awareness of the relevant condition, or of the foreseeability of harm.

Constructive knowledge can be more difficult for some property owners to understand. “Constructive knowledge” means a situation where the property owner should have known about the condition, would have known about the condition but for the owner’s negligence or willful ignorance, and/or where the condition was known to an employee or third party whose knowledge is imputed to the business owner.

Note that where a hazard is created by an employee of the business, the plaintiff doesn’t even need to prove the owner’s knowledge. Hazards created by employees are attributable to the owner, and create liability for the business owner, under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, which makes an employer legally responsible for certain wrongful or negligent acts committed by employees within the scope of their employment.

*Note: the law of premises liability attaches liability to those who own, possess, or control real property (and improvements built on property). The liability imposed on business “owners” may, in proper circumstances, also attach to people who possess or control businesses, as well as the owners thereof.

Where property is open to the public on a commercial basis, landlords and business owners should be aware that the duty of care may be higher, and should seek and obtain a clear analysis of their individual rights and obligations with regard to inspections and the condition of the property.

Consult with a lawyer or other specialist to ensure you understand your legal rights and obligations with regard to business premises, and  always comply with legal obligations to maintain, inspect, and repair. Ignorance of the law is not a defense.

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DISCLAIMER: This article is intended for informational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice to any person or entity, and does not create an attorney-client relationship with any person or entity. Premises liability is a complex legal topic, and no single article can provide complete or comprehensive coverage or information about this or any other legal topic or issue. Your personal liability may differ, based on your individual facts and circumstances. If you believe you have a legal claim or issue, or wish to know more about your individual rights, consult an experienced attorney without delay.

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