Proving Liability in a Premises Liability Case

Posted on November 15, 2012


Accidents which result in injuries or even death can and do happen within the premises of other people’s property. In certain cases, the premise owner may legally be made to answer or held liable for the damages done to those so injured or killed. This happens if it can be proven that there was at a certain point negligence on the premises owner’s part.

To prove there was negligence in a premises liability, personal injury or wrongful death claim, four elements have to be established to the satisfaction of a court of law. Briefly, these four elements of negligence are duty, breach of that duty, causation and damages.

The first element simply means that the owner of the premises owes the person injured within the premises a duty of care. For instance, a grocery store proprietor or manager owes a duty of care to his shoppers that they will be reasonably safe as they shop.

Under the second element, that duty of care has been breached. For example, a shopper who was going over the goods at the bottom shelf of a display rack accidentally got hit by a can of sardines that fell from the top of that rack. Here, the proprietor or manager failed in his duty of care to his shoppers of keeping them safe from falling sardine cans. It is after all his job that he regularly check on the stacking of the goods at his display racks to make sure that they have been done properly.

The last element is damages or actual harm, as when the shopper in the previous example dies of a heart attack due to the unanticipated shock from the falling sardine can .

The element before the last one is causation, and this is the hardest to prove in court. It means that the damages or harm has come about directly or indirectly because of the breach in the duty of care owed by the owner of the premises. Between the death of the shopper in the example and the store owner failing in his duty of regularly checking on the stacking of the goods at his display racks’shelves, there is a big space that has to be filled with evidence establishing a clear cause-and effect linking of events. Personal injury lawyers win their cases or not depending on how well they succeed in establishing causation.

Establishing a causation between a breach of duty and a resulting harm is particularly complicated because of the legal concept of ‘foreseeability’. A premise owner in a premises liability case is only answerable for those harms that could have been foreseen and therefore prevented or should have been prevented. For instance, if the sardine can fell on the head of a shopper because the shelf rack it was on was slammed particularly hard by a small child playing with a shopping cart, then chances are, the grocery store owner could not be held liable for the wrongful death accident in the example above even though it happened within his grocery’s premises.