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Duties of landowners and their visitors

On Behalf of | Aug 23, 2021 | Firm News

Under New York law, property owners have a duty toward people who visit them to keep the premises free from safety hazards, so as to minimize the risk of someone being injured in an accident. When they breach this duty by not repairing a safety hazard, and a visitor is injured as a result, the injured party may hold the property owner liable for their damages.

The above is a very basic introduction to the legal theory known as premises liability. This theory underpins many personal injury lawsuits including so-called slip-and-fall or trip-and-fall cases. A relatively straightforward premises liability case might involve a customer who slips on a puddle of spilled milk at a grocery store, falls, is injured, and later seeks to hold the supermarket liable for their medical expenses and other damages.

That said, it’s rare for a premises liability case to be truly simple or straightforward. This area of the law is quite complicated, and applying them to the exact circumstances of each case can be tricky.

Obvious or trivial

One question that comes up often in New York premises liability cases involves the safety hazard itself. There is no set rule on exactly what kinds of hazards require correction and what don’t, but courts have ruled that for premises liability to apply, the defective condition must have been more than trivial, but it must also have been less than “open and obvious.”

In other words, no property is 100% accident-proof. The property owner cannot be expected to protect visitors from every potential hazard. However, a reasonable property owner who saw a spill of vegetable oil on a slick market floor would know that this could easily lead to an accident in which someone gets hurt. That property owner would have a duty to warn customers and clean up the mess as soon as possible.

On the other hand, the “open and obvious” rule points to the visitor’s role in avoiding accidents. If the defective condition was so open and obvious that the visitor could not have missed it, and then walked into the hazard anyway, a court will likely find that they assumed the risk of injury themselves.

The outcome of these cases varies widely based on their unique facts and the unique skills of the attorneys involved.