Courts use “negligence principles” to determine if a property owner was negligent in protecting injured parties. These include did the property own have a duty to protect, did they breach this duty, what caused the breach, and was there actual damage or physical injury as a direct result of the breach?
When determining “Duty of Care”, courts consider many factors specific to both the business and the cause of the incident. An experienced slip and fall lawyer will use their knowledge of the law to establish precedent that is relevant to their client’s suit.
- Once neglect of duty of care has been established, a slip and fall attorney will present evidence detailing how this failure caused the accident and what physical injuries resulted from the accident.
Slip and fall accidents in Missouri encompass a wide range of incidents, including slip and falls in public places—such as stores, restaurants, hotels, and similar—in commercial spaces, like offices, and in private homes. Broadly, all sip and fall accidents are a subset of “premises liability,” meaning the liability (or legal responsibility) that one in possession or ownership of land has for accidents that occur on the property. Slip and fall cases are therefore incidents where someone on the property has hurt himself or herself due to something that the property owner has done or has failed to do. 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; or when a home owner fails to disclose to a friend that a deck is about to collapse, causing the friend to suffer injuries after walking on the surface.
Absent situations in which a landowner seeks to intentionally hurt someone (frequently called an “intentional” tort), slip and fall cases in Missouri are evaluated using so-called “ordinary” 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, and Missouri courts in particular, have laid out a four-part test that can help in making this determination. Importantly, the injured party has the burden of proving that the property owner was negligent, meaning that all of the elements of the test, described more fully below, must be proven to, more likely than not, have actually occurred.
Establishing “Duty of Care”
First, courts ask whether a duty or “duty of care” exists to protect against the injuries that occurred. This element is frequently the most significant and difficult-to-prove element in Missouri slip and fall cases. 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.
“Duty” in this context does not necessarily mean an easily recognizable obligation that the property owner is aware of, nor are most “duties” written in statutes. Instead, slip and fall cases rely on a broad swath of judge-made or judge-derived laws known as the “common law.” In Missouri, as in nearly all other states, court decisions have defined the duties that property owners must adhere to in order for these owners to avoid being legally negligent. These standards have, broadly, been collected in a document called the “Restatement of Torts,” which attempts to define duty in various circumstances. In the case of a “invitee” (in general, a “business visitor” who has been invited onto the property, like a customer who has been invited to shop at a store), a property owner is liable if he “knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover” a dangerous condition on the property, and should “expect that [the visitor] will not discover or realize the condition,” and the owner actually “fails to exercise reasonable care to protect [the customer] against the danger.”
A classic example illustrating the concept of a legal duty owed by property owners towards entrants to their property cam be found in the Missouri case of Sheil v. T.G. & Y. Stores, 781 S.W.2d 779 (Mo. 1989). In Sheil, the injured party, Sheil, was in the property owner’s store when he tripped over a box he had not seen, and fell to the floor, ultimately injuring himself. Sheil claimed that he had overheard employees, and perhaps the manager of the store, noting that the box shouldn’t be located there, and that there was a “place for those things” somewhere else in the store. Sheil, however, was unable to show who had placed the box in the aisle, for how long the box had been in the aisle, and whether other employees or customers had seen the box prior to Sheil tripping over it. At trial, a jury found that the store was legally negligent, and awarded Sheil damages. On appeal, the trial court reversed, holding, essentially, that the store was not under a legal duty to Sheil because Sheil was unable to prove for how long the box had been on the floor of the store. Sheil appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court.
The Missouri Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the trial court, and with Sheil, in finding that the store did, in fact, have a legal duty towards Sheil (and customers like him), had breached that duty, leading to Sheil’s injuries, and therefore was legally negligent. The Court reasoned that any store, like the store in question in this case, might expect that customers would move boxes, and other items, in and out of the aisle of the store. Because the store was what the court describes as a “self-service” store (in which customers find their own items from the shelves, as opposed to being guided by an employee), the store must have processes in place to ensure that aisles are monitored for items that might have fallen or might cause customers to injure themselves. A store must show that it exercises “reasonable care” in maintaining its aisles for customers.
Unfortunately, what “reasonable care” means in the context of Missouri slip and fall cases is far from easy to determine. In general, courts apply seemingly common-sense principles to property owners and occupants 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 attorney’s office, and, therefore, it is probably reasonable for an attorney’s office to check for spills much less frequently (perhaps every few hours or so) than a grocery store might. “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 cases and laws in Missouri distinguish between a “trespasser” (that means someone who is on another’s piece of property without permission), a “licensee” (like a social guest, or a friend invited over to a private residence), and an “invitee” (someone who has come to conduct business, like a customer at a store, or a paying guest at a hotel).
Breaching “Duty of Care”, Causation, and Physical Injuries
In Missouri, in general, a property owner has no duty of care (or legal duty) to a trespasser: that means, even if a trespasser is seriously injured on the property owner’s property, the property owner can, generally, never be held liable to the trespasser for the condition of his or her property. In contrast, a property owner owes a duty of care to licensees to “make safe dangers of which the possessor is aware” or should reasonably be aware of. For example, if a property owner knows that his front porch is about to collapse (or, should have known, for example, by observing the condition of the porch), but fails to tell a friend who he invites over about the porch, and the guest is subsequently injured by the porch, the property owner can be found legally negligent. Finally, an “invitee” is owed the highest standard of care: the duty to exercise reasonable care to protect the invitee against both known dangers, and those that would be revealed by an inspection. For example, if the shelves at a grocery store are about to collapse, and it would be possible to determine that these shelves were about to collapse upon inspection (even if this fact is not obvious from simply looking at the shelves), and the shelves do, in fact, collapse injuring a customer, the grocery owner may be found legally negligent, despite it being generally unapparent that the shelves were in danger of falling down without a close inspection.
The second element of negligence for Missouri slip and fall cases is whether the property owner has breached this defined 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, or failed to repair a sidewalk that caused someone to trip. If the property owner has successfully cleaned up the spill, for example, there is no liability even if someone later falls in the exact same place where the spill once was. For this reason, many stores in Missouri and elsewhere install cameras that record customer activity, as a means to prove that customers who claim they were injured by, for example, a spill in an aisle were, in fact, actually injured by such a spill.
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 orange juice that they should have cleaned up, if a customer 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 juice. Again, many stores, hotels, and offices use in-store cameras to record video to track exactly how customers or guests injure themselves. Similarly, causation asks whether the connection between the breach of the duty and the injury has somehow been severed. For example, if an individual broke her arm after falling down in a grocery store, but then suffered a concussion when the ambulance in which she was placed struck another car, a court may determine that the concussion suffered did not legally flow from the slip and fall (and therefore that there was insufficient causation), even though, but for the slip and fall, she would not have been in the ambulance in the first place.
Finally, courts ask whether the injured party actually suffer any physical injuries. As noted, these injuries need to be physical in nature—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. The requirement that there exist physical injuries does not, however, limit recovery for other, non-physical injuries. For example, if a customer falls and breaks his leg at a convenience store, but also suffers severe emotional distress from the fall, the customer may be able to recover for both the physical injury and the emotional distress. In general, courts suggest that store owners must “take the victim as [the owner] finds him”—meaning that, for example, if a customer is severely emotionally distraught, and the slip and fall exacerbates this emotional instability, the store owner may still be liable for damages flowing from such instability, even if most customers would not have bene distraught, or become distraught, over such an incident.
Experienced Slip and Fall Liability Attorney
As with most legal issues, slip and fall 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. Skilled attorney can advocate on your behalf to obtain the must just recoveries, and in the quickest amount of time.
If you or someone you know has been injured on the premisses of another party’s property and would like a free consultation, please contact Thompson Law Office and ask to speak with one of our experienced Missouri slip and fall attorneys to determine your best legal course of action to protect your rights and receive the fair compensation you deserve.