Premises liability in Missouri is the liability that a landowner or one in possession and control of property has for incidents that occur on that property. Premises liability therefore subsumes slip and fall cases (incidents in which an entrant to the property has hurt himself or herself due to something that the property owner has done or has failed to do), as well as a range of other incidents. Common examples include when a convenience store fails to clean up a spill in an aisle, causing someone to slip, fall, and break their leg; or a hotel owner fails to repair a broken bathroom faucet, causing a hotel guest to cut his or her hand while staying there. Premises liability also includes things like animal or dog bites, injuries incurred at a swimming pool, injuries incurred due to dangerous conditions on the property, and more.
Absent situations in which a landowner seeks to intentionally hurt someone, premises liability cases in Missouri are evaluated using negligence principles. This means that the injured party must prove that the owner or possessor of the premises was legally negligent. To determine whether a property owner is negligent is, unfortunately, more complicated than it might appear on the surface. Courts in Missouri have laid out a four-part test that can help in making this determination. First, did a duty or “duty of care” exist to protect against the injuries that occurred? Second, was there a breach of this duty? Third, was there sufficient causation—a link between the actions or inactions of the property owner, and the injury caused? And, finally, were there actual damages suffered—for example, was the injured party actually physically injured? Each element will be briefly explored in turn to shed light on premises liability cases in Missouri.
The first, and usually most important, element in Missouri premises liability cases is whether the owner or possessor of the property owed a duty of care to the individual who has entered onto the property. Some attorneys refer to this issue as the “notice” requirement in slip and fall cases, because another way to phrase this question is to ask whether the owner had “notice” or should have had notice that something was wrong with his or her property.
A good way to understand the duty requirement of premises liability in Missouri is by looking at an example. For example, consider a circumstance in which you badly sprain your ankle by slipping on a puddle of spilled orange juice located next to a refrigerator in a grocery store. There are no cameras near the refrigerator, and there were no other customers or employees who witnessed the fall. Whether you will be able to fully recover for your injuries depends on whether the grocery store had a duty to clean up the spilled orange juice. The grocery store might argue, for example, at trial, that, although it is true that there was spilled orange juice in the aisle from an orange juice container in its refrigerator, the store lacked notice of this spill: that is, no employees saw the spill, and no one informed any of the store employees of the spill. Moreover, neither you nor the store can prove for how long the orange juice was on the floor: five minutes, half an hour, or even several hours. Because it lacked notice, and there is no way to tell for how long the orange juice was on the ground for, the grocery store did not have a duty to clean it up.
Although this argument is unlikely to work for the grocery store, the result of this case would turn on whether the grocery store has exercised “reasonable care.” Reasonable care, in this case, investigates whether the grocery store was acting consistent with how other groceries stores might act in the same circumstance. For example, a court would ask whether it is reasonable that a grocery store might not patrol its aisles for spilled orange juice for many hours. Because the grocery store stated that it was unaware of for how long the spilled orange juice was on the ground, this suggests that the grocery store did not have employees monitoring its aisles for such incidents. A court will likely find that this type of behavior is not reasonable: that is, even though the grocery store lacked actual notice of the spilled orange juice, it should have known about the spilled orange juice by having employees patrol the aisles on a reasonably consistent basis. This means that the grocery store did have a duty to protect against the spilled orange juice, and, therefore, their failure to clean it up entitles you to pursue a claim against them.
What “reasonable care” means in the context of Missouri premises liability cases is, as perhaps is obvious, far from easy to determine. In general, courts apply seemingly common-sense principles to property owners based on the circumstances. For example, in a busy grocery store, it is reasonable to assume that food and drinks might fall on the floor frequently, and therefore that the store must often check to make sure its aisles are free from debris and spills (perhaps every few minutes or so). However, it is probably much less common for food and drinks to fall on the floor of the hallway of a small doctor’s office, and, therefore, it is probably reasonable for a doctor’s office to check for spills much less frequently (perhaps every few hours or so) than a grocery store. “Reasonable care” is a legal determination that lawyers, looking at previous cases, can help to shed light on, given the unique facts and circumstances of the slip and fall case at hand.
An important caveat to the issue of duty is the so-called “status” of the individual who might be on the property. For various purposes, many Missouri cases and laws distinguish between a “trespasser” (that means someone who is on another’s piece of property without permission), a “licensee” (that means someone invited to do business dealings on the premises, like a customer to a public store), and an “invitee” (like a personal guest of the possessor). In Missouri, the owner (or sometimes referred to as “possessor”) of property owes no duty of care to a trespasser. This means that, if someone were to break into a grocery store after hours, or trespass on private property, and become injured, the possessor of the property cannot generally be liable for any damages that occur, except in some very specific circumstances.
The possessor of property owes a duty to licensees, such as customers to a store, to make safe any dangers that the possessor is aware of. For example, if a store owner operates a convenience store, and ropes off the front staircase to the store with a sign noting they are dangerous and not to use them, yet you still use these stairs and become injured, the store owner would not owe a duty to you for your injuries, and you will be unsuccessful in your suit. Moreover, if you break your ankle while walking in the backyard as a result of a tree stump that the store owner was unaware was in the backyard (and did not have a reason to be aware of), you, similarly, would be unable to recover for your injuries. The convenience store owner, was not aware, nor should he have been aware, of the tree stump in the yard that caused the injury. In contrast, if the convenience store owner knows that there is a broken tile in the bathroom, but fails to warn you, and you fracture your arm after tripping on the tile in the bathroom, you have a strong case for recovery for your injuries, since the owner actually knew of the dangerous condition.
Finally, the possessor owes the highest duty of care to licensees, who are generally private social guests of the possessor. The possessor owes a duty of “reasonable care” to protect against both known and unknown dangers that would have been revealed by an inspection. For example, in the previous example, if you had broken your ankle while walking in the backyard of a friend’s house to which you were invited to a barbecue, you likely could recover for your injuries, even if your friend was unaware of the tree stump, because a reasonable inspection of the property would have revealed this danger.
The second element of negligence for Missouri slip and fall cases is whether the property owner has breached the duty of care. This is fairly easy to determine since it asks whether the property owner has, for example, failed to clean up a spill that they should have cleaned up. If the property owner has successfully cleaned up the spill, there is no liability, even if someone later falls in the exact same place where the spill once was.
The third element to consider is “causation,” which asks whether the person’s injuries are actually caused by the duty breached by the property owner. For example, even if a grocery store has failed to clean up spilled milk that they should have cleaned up, if a shopper at the store falls because of some other reason—like, a medical issue, or they simply trip over their own feet—the store is not liable for that person’s injury, even if it happens next to, or on top of, the spilled milk. For this reason, many stores, hotels, and offices have cameras and record video to track exactly how customers or guests actually injured themselves.
Finally, did the injured party actually suffer any injuries? Usually these injuries need to be physical—simply being inconvenienced or annoyed at falling is not enough to sue the property owner in a slip and fall case, although sometimes even minor physical injuries might be enough to justify a legal case.
In Missouri, special rules apply to individuals on property who are children. If a possessor of land is aware that children would or might be exposed to conditions on the property, the possessor is under a heightened duty to protect against damages. The theory is that, because children are unable to appreciate the risk of harm, the possessor of the land has a greater duty to ensure that the land is safe. Such a concept applies to places in which children might frequent, such as playgrounds, school grounds, public swimming pools, amusements parks, and similar.
A different concept than that outline above applies for dog bites and similar injuries incurred on the premises of another, although in ways that are often more lenient for the victims. Missouri statutes specifically impose a theory of “strict liability” for dog bites and other animal injuries. This means that, unlike above, where a duty must be shown by the injured party, in Missouri it is enough to simply show that the victim was injured as a result of a dog bite, that the victim was lawfully on the property of someone else (for example, wasn’t trespassing), and the injured person did not provoke the dog to bite. The relevant Missouri statute states that the owner of the premises will be responsible for the damages resulting from the bite, and will also be required to pay a fine of $1,000. Importantly, this statute does not require a showing of negligence, or that the owner did anything wrong. For example, the owner could restrain the dog, could warn you about the dog being aggressive, and cost post signs on the property stating that the dog bites, yet, despite this, if the dog actually does injury you or someone else, the owner will still be liable for the injuries resulting.
As with most legal issues, premises liability cases in Missouri can be complicated and specific to the facts of what happened. That is why it is important to consult a lawyer who can help determine what happened, and the legal rights and remedies that may be available. It’s similarly important to document the circumstance of the injury almost immediately upon them occurring, as many legal rights may be specific to the timing of the injury, and the person or individuals involved. Obtaining a police report, and informing the property owner, manager, or other as the case may be is often essential in obtaining full compensation for injuries incurred.