When Is a Property Owner at Fault for an Accident?

When someone is injured on someone else's property due to unsafe conditions, they're eligible to hold the property owner liable for their medical costs and other losses. Premises liability law in Louisiana is, on the surface, fairly simple. In theory, the burden of proof for plaintiffs includes just three elements.

All premises liability claims in Louisiana must prove:

  • The condition of the property was dangerous at the time of the visit
  • The owner knew or should have known about the unsafe condition
  • The injury was caused by the unsafe condition

The burden of proof applies to residential and commercial properties, and it covers conditions from toxic waste to slippery floors to dog attacks. However, where Louisiana law has a complex case history is on the second point. When is an owner reasonably obligated to know about a hazard on their property? Was there a recent spill and no employees on duty? Was the dog securely located behind a gate?

Louisiana's case history suggests that in cases of toxic exposure, the burden of proof regarding an owner's knowledge is lower, i.e. in most cases, owners should absolutely be aware of hazardous materials on their property. In commercial or residential cases, the burden of proof about an owner's "constructive" knowledge will depend on the circumstances.

An Owner's Duty to Warn

Regarding the first required proof ("The condition of property was dangerous at the time"), how dangerous a condition was will depend on whether an owner gave adequate warning about the hazard. For instance, if you slip and fall on an unmarked slippery floor in a Wal-Mart, that's a dangerous condition. If someone slips and falls on a slippery floor surrounded by caution tape, then proving liability will be more difficult.

There may even be cases where an owner does not have a duty to warn at all. In 2014, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that if a hazard is open and apparent to people exercising "reasonable caution," then the owner may not have a duty to warn. In Bufkin v. Felipe's (2014), the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled regarding a plaintiff who was struck by a bicyclist because his view of traffic was obstructed by a construction dumpster.

In Bufkin, the court used a "risk-utility balancing test" to determine whether a construction dumpster presented a dangerous condition.

The risk-utility balancing test has four parts:

  • Usefulness of the hazardous condition
  • Likelihood and severity of potential harm (incl. how obvious the hazard is)
  • The cost of preventing harm
  • The social utility or inherent danger of the plaintiff's activities

In this case, the court ruled that because the dumpster was out in the open and obviously obstructing the view of traffic, any reasonable pedestrian should have exercised caution. The dismissal of the plaintiff's case was upheld. Their ruling has since been affirmed multiple times in court.

"Social Utility or Inherent Danger"

Despite the relative simplicity of Louisiana premises liability law, there are nuances to these cases your lawyer needs to consider. However, the risk-utility balancing test does address a famous urban legend about injury law. The story goes that a robber, while breaking into a home, injured himself by falling through the roof. He sued the homeowner, who ended up having to pay for the robber's injuries.

Whatever kernel of truth this story might be based on, under Louisiana law, it simply wouldn't happen. No judge would take seriously a premises liability claim for injuries suffered while committing a crime. Among other things, it's worth noting that one of the elements of the risk-utility test from the 2014 Bufkin case is "the social utility or inherent danger of the plaintiff's activities." Robbery has no social utility and is inherently dangerous; therefore, homeowners have no duty to warn about hazards when it comes to robbers.

Where property owners do have a duty to warn are in the following situations:

  • Guests, neighbors, friends, and others invited for social reasons
  • Plumbers, contractors, landscapers, and others hired by the owner
  • Mail delivery, package delivery, municipal workers, and others who have a duty to enter your property

When Do Trespassers Have a Right to Sue?

The rare situations where trespassers have a case against property owners usually involve situations where the owner is aware of the trespassing, or the owner has created hazards to cause intentional harm (i.e. booby traps).

For instance, let's say a homeowner knows that teenagers cut through his backyard to get to school every morning. It's trespassing, but he's aware of it. If one of those kids hurts themselves by tripping on scrap metal in his yard, it could be argued that the homeowner is liable because he was aware of trespassers and did nothing to stop them or warn them.

If an owner is aware that he has trespassers and sets traps for those trespassers, then he is even more liable for their injuries. Under no circumstances is a homeowner allowed to set traps to cause willful injury.

Injured on Someone's Property? Speak to Clayton, Frugé & Ward.

Clayton, Frugé & Ward is one of the most successful and reputable injury law firms in Louisiana. Our injury firm is responsible for the largest single-injury verdict in the history of our state, and we've won hundreds of millions for our clients. If you were hurt while visiting a commercial or residential property, speak with us to learn your options. We can guide you through understanding your case and what to expect after filing a claim.

Call (225) 209-9943 or contact us online to get a free consultation today.