Premises Liability Law in California
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If you’ve been hurt on someone else’s property, your rights are protected under California’s premises liability laws.
Premises liability is the area of personal injury law that addresses dangerous conditions on public and private property. It’s most frequently associated with slip and fall or trip and fall claims, but numerous other types of injuries are also covered by premises liability, including:
- Injuries resulting from inadequate maintenance
- Assaults due to negligent security
- Dog bites
- Swimming pool accidents
- Water leaks and flooding
- Fumes, chemicals, and other toxic substances
The basic elements of a premises liability case are the same as any other personal injury case: we must show that someone had a legal duty of care to you, that they breached that duty of care through carelessness or recklessness, and that you were harmed as a result. Premises liability law defines what that duty of care is, who owes it, and who it’s owed to.
Who can be liable for premises liability claims in California?
In general, the responsible party in a premises case can be anyone who owns, leases, occupies, or controls the property in question. The use of “or” there is important – it doesn’t have to be someone who owns, possesses, and controls the property. Anyone who has control over the property where you were injured can be held responsible for your injuries under California law (Alcarez v. Vece  14 Cal. 4th 1149). Depending on the type of property and the circumstances of the injury, some of the parties who might be liable include:
- Tenant or renter
- Commercial property owner
- Property management company
- Business owner
- Parent company
The legal doctrine of respondeat superior (literally “let the master answer”) also affects liability in premises liability cases involving businesses. This doctrine means employers are liable for the actions of their employees within the scope of their employment. For instance, if a store employee spills a liquid on the floor and a customer slips, falls, and is injured due to that spill, the store can be held liable for the dangerous condition their employee created, even if the store manager or owner was not aware of the spill.
For the purposes of this page, we will use the term “property owner” to refer generically to the responsible person in a premises case.
The “reasonable care” standard is used in California
Traditional common law held property owners to different standards based on the reason the injured person was on the premises. The highest duty of care was owed to “invitees,” people invited onto the property by the owner, with a lower duty owed to “licensees,” people allowed onto the property. Little, if any, duty of care was owed to trespassers.
However, in the landmark Rowland v. Christian ruling in 1968, the California Supreme Court abolished this standard on the grounds that everyone’s life and health matters, regardless of the reason they are in a particular place at a particular time. As Justice Raymond E. Peters wrote in the majority opinion:
A man's life or limb does not become less worthy of protection by the law nor a loss less worthy of compensation under the law because he has come upon the land of another without permission or with permission but without a business purpose.
Under current California law, the property owner or manager must act with “reasonable care” toward everyone on the premises, including trespassers. When applying the reasonable care standard, California courts may use the following criteria:
- Where the property is located
- How likely it is that someone would enter the property the way the injured person did
- How likely it was that someone would be harmed
- How serious the likely harm would be
- Whether the owner knew or should have known about the danger
- The difficulty of protecting against the danger
- How much control the property owner or manager had over the dangerous condition
This is not an exhaustive list; the courts are free to consider any other relevant factors. As such, a person’s status at the time of the accident can still matter because it may affect what the court views as reasonable care. For instance, if a property owner puts up a sign at the entrance to the property warning visitors of a danger, and a trespasser bypasses the entrance by climbing in through a window and thus misses the warning, the property owner might reasonably argue that they acted with reasonable care and could not anticipate that someone would break in via the window. These are factually intensive legal situations that are won and lost based on evidence.
Comparative negligence in California premises liability cases
California uses the “pure” comparative negligence rule in all personal injury claims, including premises cases. This means if you are partially at fault for your injuries, you can still recover damages, but your recovery is reduced by your percentage of fault. For example, if you are awarded $100,000, but you are also found 30% responsible for the injury while the property owner is 70% responsible, your award would be reduced by 30%, for a final award of $70,000. Pure comparative negligence means you can recover even if you are more than 50% at fault – if the property owner was, say, 40% responsible for your injury, you can still take legal action to pursue that 40%.
Other limitations on premises liability claims
California law limits the property owner’s liability if the injured person was on the premises for a designated recreational purpose (Cal. Civ. Code §846) or if the injured person was committing certain felonies at the time of the injury (Cal. Civ. Code §847).
Premises liability cases require extensive research and investigation
Because of the way California’s premises liability laws are written and interpreted, premises cases are highly factually intensive. To get the compensation you need, you must meet these legal standards with rock-solid evidence and a clear, coherent narrative of how the property owner’s negligence caused your injury. In premises cases, in addition to having greater resources, the property owner and their insurance company have literal “home field” advantage. That’s why it’s so important to hire a California premises liability lawyer who knows the law and fights hard for victims.
If you’ve been hurt on someone else’s property in California, you don’t have to face the challenges ahead alone. The Swanson Law Group will fight for your interests and guide you through the process while you focus on healing. We would be honored to listen to your story and explain your legal options in a free consultation.