Interviewer: Hey, we’re here with Attorney Reuben Donig. And I have a question, what obligations do property owners have regarding safety of their premises?
Reuben: The obligation of the property owner is similar to the obligations that a person has in all aspects of life. Basic word is reasonable, you gotta be reasonable in what you do. So, the property owner has a duty to take reasonable precautions to make sure that his property is in a reasonably safe condition. If you’re aware of something that is a problem, a potential hazard, a potential injury waiting to happen, you have a duty to take some precautions to fix it, or at the very least, to warn about it, to guard against it. This is true for property owners who in their own house, for private property owners, this is true for commercial property as well.
In addition, if you know of a special situation, where a particular person or class of people has a particular risk of harm, you have to take extra precautions. For example, if you own an apartment building, and it has a swimming pool, and you know that there are going to be young children in the families of the renters, you have a special duty to protect those young children, making sure that there’s a fence or a safety. Even if your pool is old and it was built at a time when no fence was required or safety measures were required, you will be held liable for an accidental drowning or other injury suffered by a young child. You can talk about the parents having responsibility or somebody else needing to be there to watch the young child, but you as the property owner will not be able to avoid responsibility for circumstances on your property when you know that there was a potential for danger. You have to take reasonable steps and precautions to avoid the harm.
Interviewer: I’m interested in learning what reasonable actually means.
Reuben: Reasonable is kind of in the eye of the beholder. The ultimate decider of whether you were reasonable is going to be a court, it’s going to be a jury. You take…there is no fixed definition for it. Obviously, if you’ve got a house and you have a broken handrail and you don’t fix it, you’re not being reasonable. On the other hand, if someone spills water in your kitchen, you have a reasonable time to figure it out, to learn about it, to know about it. You’re not automatically liable because somebody spilled water in your kitchen and somebody else slipped on it. You have to just show that you acted reasonably.
I used to get a lot of slip and fall type of cases in grocery stores, for example, or fast food restaurants, where stuff is dropped on the floor, usually by customers. That doesn’t make the property owner, the Safeway or the Kentucky Fried Chicken, fast food place, or McDonald’s automatically liable when somebody slips and falls. Because you have to show that they didn’t act reasonably. Did they have an opportunity to do an inspection? Did they have an opportunity to learn of the hazard on the floor? Did they have an opportunity to clean it up or put up a warning cone or do something to prevent people from stepping in it? The jury is the ultimate judge of whether the property owner acted reasonably. If that spill remain on the floor for 5 or 10 minutes, and nobody did anything, probably not reasonable. But there’s no law that says it’s within 5 minutes or 10 minutes. So…
Interviewer: What about the cost to repair? Is that taken into consideration? For example, you mentioned the stair banister. If it’s an excessive expense, is that considered as part of the reasonableness?
Reuben: Generally not. Now, part of the burden of being an owner of the property is you’re responsible to keep it in a safe condition. You undertake that burden, you undertake that responsibility, and if you can’t afford to fix it, then you have no business owning the property really. You cannot avoid responsibility by saying, “Look, I knew this stairway was unsafe, but you know what it would have cost to put in a new stairway? I just didn’t feel like paying for it or couldn’t afford it.” That’s not going to be considered a legitimate excuse.