Recent Winter Weather Raises Premises Liability Concerns

With winter just around the corner and the first snow falling in Maryland over the last few days, it is important that people begin to exercise caution so as to avoid the danger that ice and snow can pose to pedestrians. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), over one million Americans suffer a slip and fall injury each year, and, of those injuries, more than 17, 000 prove fatal. Further, ice and snow accumulation is one of, if not the leading cause of, slip and fall injuries.

As this blog has discussed before, property owners owe those individuals that enter onto their premises a duty to maintain that property in reasonably safe condition. This duty is commonly referred to in legal terms as premises liability. Slip and fall claims usually arise when a customer of a business trips or falls as the result of a slippery surface, uneven pavement, or improperly constructed or maintained stairwell. As already mentioned, one of the most common causes of slippery and/or uneven surfaces is accumulation of ice and snow.

Until recently, Maryland law stated that the risk posed by ice and snow was one which “anyone of adult age must be taken to appreciate” and, therefore, a person who slips on snow or ice had assumed the risk of such a hazardous condition. This meant that such an injured individual would be barred from recovering for such injury, regardless of the actions of the property owner.

In 2011, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a decision that made a previously unrecognized distinction between regular ice and “black ice,” the difference being that black ice is much more difficult to detect. In Poole v. Coakley & Williams Construction, Inc. the Court of Appeals concluded that knowledge of the risk of black ice cannot be imputed to plaintiffs as a matter of law where the facts regarding the plaintiff’s knowledge of the ice in question are disputed.

Under a theory of premises liability, a property owner will be liable for any injuries that occur on his or her property resulting from a defect in the premises that the owner knew or should have known about. A defect is defined as a condition or characteristic of the premises that poses an unreasonable risk of injury to persons who enter the property. Under the holding in Poole, black ice can be considered such a defect which can result in a property owner’s liability for injuries resulting from its presence.

Property owners owe their guests a duty to keep the property in a reasonably safe condition, which is referred to as their duty of care. The duty of care owed by a property owner varies depending on the nature of the reason why the injured party was on the property. The duty of care falls into the following three categories:

Invitees
Invitees are persons who enter onto premises for the purpose of conducting business for the benefit of the property owner. Property owners have a duty to invitees to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition and to repair or warn of known dangerous conditions.

The most common example of an invitee is the patron of a retail store. For instance, grocery stores create dangerous conditions all the time when employees mop or wax floors, making them slippery. The store cannot avoid this hazard unless it stops cleaning its floors. The store can, however, notify patrons of the potentially dangerous condition, therefore satisfying its duty to warn, and avoiding liability for injuries resulting from a fall. Property owners sometimes owe a heightened duty to guarantee the safety of children that may not be able to read or understand warnings or appreciate a particular hazardous situation.

Property owners also owe invitees a duty to regularly inspect their premises in order to discover potentially dangerous conditions. Accordingly, property owners can be found liable for injuries caused by hazards of which they did not have actual knowledge but should have known about.

Licensees
Licensees are individuals that enter a property for social reasons, such as guests at a party. Property owners owe licensees a duty to maintain their premises in a reasonably safe condition and to remedy unsafe conditions. Property owners also owe licensees a duty to warn them of known hazards on the property. Unlike an invitee, a licensee is not owed a duty to warn or remedy dangerous conditions that should have been discovered by the property owner.

Trespassers
Despite what any people might think, property owners do, in fact, owe a limited duty to trespassers on their property. Property owners owe trespassers a duty to prevent intentional or reckless injuries. A discovered trespasser, i.e. one that the owner knows is on the property, is also owed a duty to warn of known hazards that the trespasser could not ordinarily detect.

The qualified attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience representing individuals that have been injured as a result of the negligence of property owners. If you or someone you know has been injured on the property of another, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.