If you are injured on property owned or occupied by someone else, you may have the right to sue that person or company for coverage of your injuries under a portion of law known as premises liability.
Premises liability refers to the duty owed by the property owner to the visitor. If that duty was breached and injuries resulted, the person hurt can pursue an Indiana premises liability claim against the property owner. The question of “duty” relies heavily on the determination of the visitor’s status. For example, a business invitee, someone invited to a business property for the benefit of the business, is owed the highest duty of care. Property owners must not only warn business invitees of potential dangers and address them quickly, but also they must regularly check for them. By contrast, if you are a trespasser, a property owner need only not intentionally harm you or set traps (although there may be exceptions for child trespassers).
Recently, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a premises liability plaintiff who alleged she was seriously injured when she tripped and fell on a missed step at an aviation company during an open house with her young grandson.
According to court records, the plaintiff fell while she was walking from a pilot’s lounge into the hangar. Just across the threshold was a five-inch step down that she did not realize was there.
A set of double doors was between the two rooms, and usually, when the doors remained open, the facility put chairs in front of the door with a sign warning people to watch their step. However, the plaintiff arrived early to the event, so the chairs were not yet in place.
The area was lit brightly, and the plaintiff was looking straight ahead, looking toward her grandson, who was a few steps ahead of her, walking toward a plane. She didn’t see there was a step down. As she walked through the door, she missed the step and fell. She realized after she fell that there was a red sign with white letters cautioning about the fall, but the sign was laid flat on the floor. Another sign warning of the step was obscured by the door.
She later posted about the incident on social media, saying she was “so excited I didn’t watch my step and fell.” Her ankle was injured, and she was treated at a local emergency room. (This is one example of how social media posts can come back to haunt plaintiffs later, should they decide to pursue legal action.)
Two years later, the plaintiff filed an Indiana personal injury lawsuit against the defendant aviation company. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted. The plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court reversed, meaning the case can now proceed.
Summary judgment, which is a judgment as a matter of law favoring one side or the other prior to trial, is usually not appropriate in negligence cases because so many elements are not matters of law but instead matters of fact. Matters of fact are supposed to be weighed by a jury, rather than a judge.
It’s well-settled in Indiana law that landowners must exercise reasonable care for the safety of invitees, but they are not responsible to ensure an invitee’s safety. Conditions that pose a reasonable risk of harm won’t trigger a finding of premises liability. In this case, the appellate court found the trial court’s grant of summary judgment appeared to result from the conclusion that a step down was not an unreasonable risk of harm. The appellate court said it could not agree with this assessment, posed as a matter of law.
While stair steps are a common occurrence, the court noted, there could be conditions of stairs that create an unreasonable risk. This particular step was located in an unusual spot – right at the threshold of a doorway. The appeals panel ruled there are questions of fact as to whether the step created an unreasonable risk. The case was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings.
Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.
Carol Walters v. JS Aviation, Inc. d/b/a Eagle Aircraft, Sept. 7, 2017, Indiana Court of Appeals
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