California’s Premises Liability Law: When Does Your Insured Owe a Duty?

Author: Kelly Denham

The law surrounding premises liability in California is vast.  In essence, premises liability describes a landowner’s liability for a person’s injuries or damages arising from his ownership, maintenance, or control of real property. Premises liability is a form of negligence, where the possessor of the premises owes a duty of care to third persons who enter the property to exercise ordinary care in the management of the premises to avoid exposing persons to an unreasonable risk of harm. (Brooks v. Eugene Burger Management Corp. (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 1611, 1619.) This requires landowners, and those who simply maintain property, to maintain land in their possession and control in a reasonably safe condition.  (CACI 1002.)  A failure to fulfill this duty is negligence.  (Brooks, supra, 215 Cal.App.3d at 1619.)

Duty Analysis

The first question the court must examine is whether the landowner owed a duty of care to the person injured on his property.  Courts consider several factors when determining the boundaries of the landowner’s duty, including the foreseeability of the harm, the degree of certainty of injury, the closeness of the connection between the landowner’s conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the landowner’s conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden to the landowner, and the consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with the resulting liability for breach, and the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance. (Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108.)

Foreseeability of the Harm

The foreseeability of the harm has become the principal factor in the duty analysis.  (Scott v. Chevron U.S.A. (1992) 5 Cal.App.4th 510.)  When determining duty, the Court does not decide whether a particular plaintiff’s injury was reasonably foreseeable in light of a particular defendant’s conduct.  Rather, the Court generally evaluates “whether the category of negligent conduct at issue is sufficiently likely to result in the kind of harm experienced such that liability may be imposed on the negligent party.”  (Id.)

The Degree Of Certainty Of Injury And The Closeness Of The Connection Between The Landowner’s Conduct And The Injury Suffered

Where the injury suffered is connected only distantly and indirectly to the defendant’s negligent act, the risk of that type of injury from the category of negligent conduct at issue is unforeseeable.  Conversely, a closely connected type of injury is likely foreseeable. (Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co. (2011) 51 Cal.4th 764, 779.)

The Moral Blame Attached To The Landowner’s Conduct And The Policy Of Preventing Future Harm

The moral blame associated with ordinary negligence is generally not sufficient to tip the balance of the Rowland factors in favor of liability. Courts require a higher degree of moral culpability such as where the defendant (1) intended or planned the harmful result, (2) had actual or constructive knowledge of the harmful consequences of their behavior, (3) acted in bad faith or with a reckless indifference to the results of their conduct, or (4) engaged in inherently harmful acts. (Adams v. City of Fremont (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 243, 270.)

Courts look at all the evidence to determine whether it supports a conclusion the landowner’s conduct was morally blameworthy.  This factor weighs more in favor of the landowner if he did not intend for the injury to occur.

This factor also presents a public policy consideration.  Where there is no certainty future injuries or accidents will be prevented if a duty is imposed, then courts are more hesitant to find a landowner culpable for any alleged conduct.

Burden On The Landowner

The court must determine the specific measures the plaintiff asserts the landowner should have taken to prevent the harm. This frames the issue for the court’s determination by defining the scope of the duty under consideration. The court must then analyze how financially and socially burdensome these proposed measures would be to a landlord, which measures could range from minimally burdensome to significantly burdensome under the facts of the case.  (Garcia v. Paramount Citrus Ass’n, Inc. (2008) 164 Cal.App.4th 1448, 1460.) Courts will not impose a duty on the landowner if it would impose a severe burden on the landowners and the broader community at large.  (Id.)

Conclusion

The duty analysis is only the first step in the framework for determining whether a landowner is liable for any injuries or damages on his property.  If a court finds the landowner owed a duty, the plaintiff must still show he was harmed, and the landowner’s negligence must be a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s harm.  Thus, it is important for landowners to take every effort to eliminate risks and warn against them so injuries do not occur.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kelly Denham graduated from Loyola Law School in 2012.  Ms. Denham’s primary focus at Tyson & Mendes is personal injury, professional liability and employment litigation.  Contact Kelly at 858.263.4117 or kdenham@tysonmendes.com.

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