Are You Liable for Injuries Sustained on Your Property?

Your commercial tenant calls you from the hospital, sounding rather upset. He has been injured on your property, and feels that you are responsible for his medical bills. He alleges that you knew some aspect of the property posed a threat, and that you neglected to warn him of the danger. The tenant asks you to pay his hospital bills, and threatens to sue if you refuse.

If you find yourself in such a sticky situation, you might be wondering whether you could be liable, as a commercial property owner, for any injuries sustained on your property. That is a situation where you should immediately check with our real estate attorneys. According to California state law, your tenant would have to prove that you had a duty of care to him, that you breached your duty of care, that the breach did indeed cause his injuries, and that he suffered damages as a result of your negligence.

It’s usually not difficult to prove injuries or the expenses associated with them, but duty of care is another matter. If you are aware of a dangerous situation on your property, then you are obligated to fix the problem or at least warn your tenants of the risk. But in order for your tenant to win his case, the situation must be subject to duty of care laws in the first place. The California Supreme Court uses the following tests to establish whether a particular situation is subject to duty of care:

  • harm is foreseeable
  • the plaintiff most certainly suffered an injury
  • the plaintiff’s injury is closely connected to the property owner’s conduct
  • there is moral blame attached to the owner’s conduct
  • the policy of preventing future harm
  • the burden on the owner, and the consequences to the community of imposing duty on the owner
  • the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance to protect against the risk

Many cases get hung up on the first point. Were you aware of a potentially dangerous situation on your property? For example, if you’ve known for a long time that a particular stairway was dangerous, failed to warn your tenant, and never attempted to fix the problem, then duty of care will probably apply. On the other hand, if the dangerous situation occurred spontaneously, and you had no knowledge that there was a problem on the property, then duty of care might not apply.

It’s more complicated than that, of course, as most legal matters tend to be! And as with all liability issues, adequate and good liability insurance should be your first line of defense against this sort of claim, so you should check regularly with your insurance broker to ensure that your coverage is adequate. Since liability lawsuits can become tricky situations very quickly, we recommend that you immediately consult with our real estate attorneys, rather than trying to negotiate the issue on your own.

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