How Far Must Business Owners Go to Prevent Injury to Patrons?
The law says that business owners who open their businesses to the public owe a duty to people who enter the premises. Failure to comply with this duty is the first element of a claim for negligence, which may result in liability to people injured on the business premises.
While a plaintiff must prove all of the elements of negligence in order to prevail, property owners who breach their duty to people entering the business create an environment for negligence claims. The existence of a duty, and breach of that duty, are two of the four elements of a negligence action–so property owners who breach a duty are already at substantial risk, especially because the remaining elements (injury to the plaintiff’s person or property, caused by the dangerous condition) are often outside the property owner’s control.
Property owners control potential liability, and risk, by maintaining property in an appropriately safe condition and complying with legal duties to operate their businesses (and maintain property) in reasonably safe condition.
WHAT IS THE BUSINESS OWNER’S DUTY?
The business owner’s duty includes:
— Exercising ordinary care to prevent accidents and hazardous conditions on the premises.
— Keeping aisles, floors, and other publicly-accessible portions of the premises in reasonably safe condition for patrons and members of the public.
OWNERS MUST HAVE KNOWLEDGE OF THE HAZARD, OR LIABILITY MAY NOT ATTACH
Generally speaking, the business owner (or the manager or employee charged with maintenance of the premises) must have notice of a hazard before the failure to repair or remove the hazard will constitute a breach of the owner’s duty. Stated more simply: business owners are not normally held liable for failing to prevent a situation they didn’t know existed.
The “knowledge” required can be either actual knowledge (meaning a situation where the owner actually saw or was made aware of the hazard) or constructive knowledge (meaning situations where the owner “should have known” about the hazard, based on the facts and circumstances which existed at the time).
Owners cannot avoid liability by refusing to inspect the business premises. Failure to inspect on a reasonable basis, and with reasonable frequency and thoroughness, is also often a breach of the owner’s duty to keep and maintain the premises.
Owners also cannot avoid liability by blaming the hazardous condition on the actions of employees. Business owners are liable for their employees’ acts (undertaken within the course and scope of business) under a legal doctrine called respondent superior.
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. Negligence law and defenses are a complex legal topic, as is business owner liability, 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.