Slip and fall liability in California falls under the broader umbrella of “premises liability”—that is, the liability that a landowner or one in possession and control of property has for incidents that occur on that property. Slip and fall cases refer to 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: for example, 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.
Absent situations in which a landowner seeks to intentionally hurt someone, slip and fall cases in California 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, including those in California, 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 slip and fall liability cases in California.
The first, and usually most important, element in California slip and fall 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 example of how this element plays out in many California slip and fall cases is exemplified in Ortega v. Kmart, 36 P.3d 11 (Cal. 2001). In that case, a man, Richard Ortega, was shopping at Kmart and slipped on a puddle of milk on the floor next to a refrigerator, badly injuring his knee. At trial, Kmart argued that, although it was true that there was spilled milk on the floor, Kmart could not be responsible for Ortega’s injuries because no employees at Kmart were aware that there was spilled milk. Moreover, neither Kmart nor Ortega knew or could prove how long the milk had been on the floor, although the aisle itself had not been inspected for at least 15-30 minutes, and perhaps as long as two hours. Kmart essentially argued that it did not have “notice” that something was wrong on the property, and therefore did not have a duty to fix it. Ortega won at trial, but Kmart appealed the case all the way to the California Supreme Court.
The California Supreme Court affirmed that, even though Kmart was not aware of the spilled milk, and that it was unknown for exactly how long the milk was on the floor, Kmart had a duty to exercise “reasonable care” in keeping the premises safe. Because Kmart had gone as much as two hours before inspecting the aisle for spills, the Court agreed that a reasonable store owner should have discovered and remedied the spill prior to the accident, that therefore Kmart did, indeed, owe a duty to Ortega, and that Ortega could sue Kmart for his injuries.
What “reasonable care” means in the context of California slip and fall cases is, unfortunately, 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 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 like a social guest), and an “invitee” (someone who has come to conduct business, like a customer at a store, or a paying guest at a hotel). California does not distinguish between these types of individuals for slip and fall cases. That means that a hotel guest, a friend invited over to the hotel by the owner, and someone not staying at the hotel at all, generally all have the same rights under California law. See Rowland v. Christian, 443 P.2d 561 (Cal. 1968).
The second element of negligence for California 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.
As with most legal issues, slip and fall cases in California 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.