What does it mean for a hazard to be “foreseeable” in a slip and fall injury case?
A slip and fall accident can be devastating, resulting in significant injuries and, sometimes, permanent disability. Injury victims can seek compensation from negligent property owners and occupants, but their ability to file an injury claim often hinges upon one word: “foreseeable.”
The verbatim wording of one of Florida’s most consequential premises liability laws (Florida Statutes §768.0755) is that “the injured person must prove that the business establishment had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition and should have taken action to remedy it.”
The law then goes on to clarify what “constructive knowledge” means and how it might be established using circumstantial evidence. Making these provings can be difficult, which is why it’s so important for injury victims to speak with a Florida slip and fall lawyer. With the help of their attorney, they can look into the following factors to determine the best legal strategy for pursuing their injury claim.
Property Owners and Occupants Have a Duty of Care to Address Known or Foreseeable Hazards
Most negligence claims involve specific actions taken just before the injury occurred. A truck accident case, for example, might involve a driver who was speeding and failed to yield as expected by Florida traffic laws.
When talking about premises liability, however, property owners and primary occupants have a more-general duty to keep invitees and invited licensees from harm. Accordingly, they are expected to regularly inspect the property for hazards and remove them to the best of their ability. Some hazards may be hard to detect with the naked eye, such as a concrete and steel stairwell in danger of collapse, so property owners are expected to obtain professional help when inspecting their premises and assessing its safety.
For business properties open to the general public, the primary occupant (i.e. the business using the commercial space) has a responsibility to regularly inspect the premises and remove possible hazards. Common examples include removing boxes from a store aisle after restocking or taping down cords and wires that are required to run through areas where customers typically roam.
Any hazards that cannot reasonably be removed should be accompanied by a warning. Visitors to a park must be warned not to enter areas with heavy machinery, which should be marked “Employees Only,” among other precautions.
These duties of care are all meant to address hazards that could be predicted to emerge on a regular basis. Even if a property owner or a store’s general manager doesn’t know exactly how a high-voltage box can harm customers, they should have enough knowledge (or consult with professionals who do) to instruct guests and employees to avoid the component. It all comes back to the test of “reasonable” understanding of what can and often does cause harm to others.
In other words: there exist hazards that are “foreseeable.” If a hazard is 100% unforeseeable, then it may have been out of the owner/occupant’s control to prevent or address. For example, a grocery store may be unaccustomed to snakes browsing the spice aisle, especially if the snake is not native to the area. But if a store entryway is frequented by birds that leave slippery droppings on the tile floor, then the store’s management or the property owner should reasonably understand the risks this situation poses to visitors.
Further, by consulting with safety experts and looking to general statistics, responsible individuals are expected to be aware of the most common hazards visitors face and how to generally protect them from these foreseeable risks.
Proving That a Slipping Hazard Was Foreseeable Under Florida Law
Florida Statutes §768.0755 specifically discusses “premises liability for transitory foreign substances in a business establishment.” In layman’s terms, a “transitory foreign substance” can be seen as a puddle, liquid, or another chemical that is not a persistent part of the property (a “foreign substance”) and that is likely to come and go (“transitory”).
In some cases, a business occupant or property owner may argue that they had no actual knowledge of a dangerous condition caused by such a substance. “We didn’t know about the spill,” they may say, “so how could we have cleaned it up?”
Fortunately for victims, Florida law spells out a few factors that can be used to prove, using circumstantial evidence, that the at-fault party should have known about the hazard. To do so, an injury claimant and their attorney can seek to prove that either:
- The dangerous condition existed for such a length of time that, in the exercise of ordinary care, the business establishment should have known of the condition; or
- The condition occurred with regularity and was therefore foreseeable.
Looking at #1, this provision basically means that every property owner and the business occupant is expected to spend some amount of care inspecting the premises for hazards. On a daily level, that means sending employees to sweep away debris, clean up spills, and generally maintain safe entryways and walking paths throughout the property. In the longer-term, property owners are expected to have safety and integrity assessments of the property every few years to detect possible structural weaknesses and other hazards. Put simply: this is part of the cost of doing business, and these duties are expected of anyone who invites the public or specific people to their premises. If a hazard has existed for quite some time, then the law will likely conclude that the responsible party lapsed in their duty.
Provision #2 looks more closely at the actual history of the property and asks: is this not the first time this hazard has been present? Anything from past incident reports to employee correspondence can reveal that a hazardous condition occurred with some regularity. Once this has been established, one can reasonably conclude that even though the responsible party wasn’t aware of the hazard’s presence on that day that they knew the hazard has appeared before and was likely to appear again.
As an example of the latter situation, if an air conditioner unit regularly leaks water onto the floor of a business, then the business is responsible for warning customers and doing its best to remove the hazard. Likewise, the property owner is primarily responsible for keeping the building infrastructure fixed and working properly in the first place. In this scenario, it’s possible for either the business occupant or the property owner to hold full liability or to share it jointly should a slip and fall accident occur.
Get Help Navigating Florida Laws With a Tampa Premises Liability Lawyer
When you have been hurt in a slip and fall or another sort of accident on someone else’s property, the good news is that you don’t have to become a legal scholar to prove your case. You can enlist the help of Darrigo & Diaz. We have been helping injury victims throughout the greater Tampa area pursue compensation for all damages, and we help them exercise the full extent of their legal rights. Whether your case can be settled out of court or has to result in a jury trial, we are prepared to do whatever it takes to seek the compensation you need to recover.
Find out what legal strategies could be used and what services we provide during a free, no-obligation case review. Call (813) 774-3341 or contact us online to schedule your free appointment today.