If you have slipped and fallen on public or private property due to a hazard, such as a slippery floor or a poorly maintained sidewalk, you may have a legal case against the property owner for negligence.
However – what if the owner of the property wasn’t aware of the hazard? Can they be held liable for unsafe conditions on their property that they had no direct knowledge of? How do courts decide whether a property owner is liable for unsafe conditions on their property?
The Washington State Supreme Court took on these questions in the precedent-setting case Pimintel vs. Roundup Company.
The case was filed after Patricia Pimentel was injured in the Yakima Fred Meyer store when a paint can fell on her foot. She alleged that Fred Meyer was negligent in allowing the paint can to be placed in a precarious position, where it was likely to fall when the shelf was touched.
A jury ruled in favor of Fred Meyer. However, Mrs. Pimentel appealed, arguing that the instructions given to the jury were not consistent with the law, and caused them to deliver the not guilty verdict. Specifically, she objected to an instruction that said Fred Meyer was not responsible for unsafe conditions if it did not know about them, or would not have known if it took a reasonable degree of care in protecting its customers.
She argued that even if Fred Meyer did not know about the paint can that struck her foot, it could still be responsible for her injury in some circumstances.
The Supreme Court of Washington ultimately took the case. The court affirmed the long-standing standard for establishing whether a property owner is liable, writing, “the unsafe condition must either be caused by the proprietor or his employees, or the proprietor must have actual or constructive notice of the unsafe condition.”
In other words, if the property owner does not know about the danger on his or her property, they can’t be held liable.
But the court didn’t stop there. It carved out a massive, but fair, exception to the rule, saying that, “Such notice need not be shown, however, when the nature of the proprietor’s business and his methods of operation are such that the existence of unsafe conditions on the premises is reasonably foreseeable.”
This is a fair compromise to the issue. It means that if there is a hazard on someone’s property that they couldn’t possibly be aware of, they are not liable for safety issues that may arise from it.
However, if a business owner could reasonably see that there might be issues because of the very nature of the business, and failed to make the property safe, it is liable for injuries that result.
The court ultimately ruled in Mrs. Pimentel’s favor, ordering that a new trial be held and jurors given an instruction that reflected the new standard for establishing liability.
The standard established by this case survives to this day. It helps protect individuals injured due to the negligence of business and property owners, while also making sure that business owners are not sued for circumstances completely out of their control.
If you have slipped and fallen, or suffered another injury on someone else’s property, you may have the right to pursue legal action. Please contact us for more information, or for a free consultation.
For more information on slip and fall cases, click here.