Articles Posted in Premises Liability

Under Indiana tort law, landowners have an obligation to ensure that their property is safe for the people they host, either as social guests or business invitees. In general, a property owner must exercise reasonable care when maintaining their property to discover and eliminate any hazards. If a hazard cannot be remedied, a landowner should warn guests of the hazard’s existence.

Thus far, the focus of the discussion has been on the knowledge and actions of the landowner. However, Indiana premises liability cases also consider the knowledge and conduct of the victim. For example, if a hazard is open and obvious, the law generally holds that a plaintiff should recognize such dangers and use necessary caution. In these cases, a landowner may not be liable for a plaintiff’s injuries if the jury determines that most of the fault is attributable to the plaintiff. However, it is typically not a court’s job to determine whether a plaintiff was negligent; that task belongs to the jury. A recent case illustrates the importance of this distinction.

According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was injured when she tripped and fell over a broken sidewalk at her condo complex. At the time of the accident, the plaintiff had lived in the complex for ten years, and regularly crossed the broken sidewalk without incident. She admitted that she knew there were safer paths to take, and that she knew about the broken sidewalk.

A waiver of liability, also called a liability release waiver, is a legal document that purports to release a party of liability in the event another party is injured. Waivers of liability are very common in Indiana, and whether most people realize it, chances are they have signed one at some point.

Companies use release waivers to limit or eliminate any legal exposure through an Indiana personal injury lawsuit. Common situations where release waivers are used include:

  • Sending a child on a field trip;

In May of 2019, a federal appellate court issued a written opinion in an Indiana premises liability case discussing whether the jury should have been presented with the evidence that the plaintiff was not wearing a hard hat when he was injured. Finding that Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act precluded the admission of a plaintiff’s failure to wear safety equipment unless such a failure was related to the cause of his injury, the court reversed the jury’s verdict in favor of the defendant and ordered a new trial.

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff agreed to help his friend, the defendant, cut down trees on his property. The two agreed the plaintiff would operate the chain saw, and the defendant would keep an eye out for any hazards. While the plaintiff was cutting down a tree, a dead branch fell onto the plaintiff’s head, resulting in near-fatal injuries. The plaintiff was not wearing a hardhat.

At trial, the defendant presented evidence to the jury that the plaintiff did not wear a hardhat and thus assumed the risk of any injury that befell him. The defendant explicitly told the court that he was not arguing that the plaintiff’s injuries would have been less serious if he was wearing a hardhat; the sole focus of the defendant’s argument was that the plaintiff was negligent himself, and should not be permitted to recover for his injuries. The court concluded that the evidence could be used “to show assumption of risk, comparative fault, and whether [the plaintiff] acted as a reasonably careful person.” The jury ultimately found that the plaintiff was 51% at fault and the defendant 49% at fault. Under the Indiana Comparative Fault Act, the plaintiff recovered nothing. The plaintiff appealed.

When someone is injured due to the alleged negligence of another party, the injury victim can pursue a claim for compensation against the parties they believe to be at fault for their injuries. These cases all fall under the umbrella of Indiana personal injury cases. However, there are several different types of personal injury cases, and courts apply slightly different legal standards according to the type of claim that is brought. A recent state appellate decision illustrates the importance of the legal standard that is applied by the court.

The case arose when the plaintiff, who was a guest at the defendant’s property, was injured in a golf cart accident. The defendant was driving the cart at the time of the accident. The plaintiff sued the defendant, claiming that the defendant acted negligently by operating the golf cart in an unsafe manner. The plaintiff’s claim made no mention of a premises liability theory, and did not mention the defendant’s status as the owner of the property where the accident occurred.

The defendant claimed that he did not violate a duty of care that he owed to the plaintiff. The defendant characterized the plaintiff’s claim as one of premises liability, arguing that the plaintiff was a licensee on his property, and thus he only had a duty “to refrain from willfully, wantonly, knowingly, or intentionally injuring her.”

As we frequently discuss in this blog, Indiana landowners owe a duty of care to those whom they allow to enter their property. When a landowner fails to live up to this duty, they may be liable for any injuries caused on their property through an Indiana premises liability lawsuit. The extent of any duty that is owed to a guest depends primarily on the reason for the guest’s visit. Thus, determining the status of a visitor is the first step in an Indiana premises liability lawsuit.

As a general matter, customers of a business or others who are on a landowner’s property for commercial purposes are owed a greater duty than social guests who are invited upon the premises. Finally, trespassers – or those who enter a property without the owner’s permission – are owed the least significant duty. Generally, a landowner must only refrain from willfully causing injuries to trespassers. However, under the state’s recreational use statute, there are other situations in which a landowner may not be liable for a guest’s injuries.

The Indiana recreational use statute limits a landowner’s liability when the land has been made available for public recreational use. This includes activities such as swimming, camping, hiking, or sightseeing. There are also limitations on a landowner’s liability if they allow others to hunt or fish on their property. To qualify for the statute’s protections, however, the landowner cannot charge the visitor a fee for the use of their property.

One of the most important determinations in an Indiana slip-and-fall case is the status of the injured party. Visitors are classified into three categories, invitees, licensees, and trespassers. Under Indiana premises liability law, the highest duty is owed to invitees, who are guests who are invited onto the landowner’s property for the landowner’s benefit. Invitees most often are guests who are visiting for business purposes, such as customers. When it comes to the duty owed to an invitee, an Indiana landowner must make reasonable efforts to clear any known hazards on their property or at least warn the invitee of the known hazard.

On the other end of the spectrum are trespassers. For the most part, Indiana landowners do not owe trespassers a duty. However, the landowner cannot willfully or maliciously cause a trespasser harm. Occupying the middle ground between invitee and trespasser is the licensee. A licensee is someone who has either express or implied permission to enter a property, and does so “for his own convenience, curiosity, or entertainment.” The most common licensees are social guests, including friends and family members.

Landowners owe a duty to licensees to refrain from “acting in a manner to increase their peril.” A landowner also has a duty to warn licensees of any known dangers on their property. A recent state appellate decision discussed a landowner’s potential liability to a social guest who was injured on his property.

Businesses in Indiana have an obligation to their customers to ensure that the area accessible to customers is kept in a reasonably safe condition. Indiana grocery stores are no exception, and a large number of Indiana slip-and-fall accidents are the result of grocery store management failing to keep the store’s aisles safe for customers.

Of course, a grocery store will not be held responsible for every slip-and-fall accident that occurs in the store. Under Indiana law, a plaintiff must be able to show that the grocery store was negligent before they will be able to recover for their injuries. This includes showing that the store employees knew or should have known about the hazard. A few common types of negligence that may occur in a grocery store are:

  • the improper stacking of goods;
  • the failure to clean up the mess caused by a product that either fell off the shelf or was dropped by another customer; and
  • the failure to ensure areas of high pedestrian traffic are kept dry during wet weather.

A recent state appellate decision discussed whether a plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to find that the defendant grocery store knew or should have known about the hazard that caused her fall.

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The most commonly seen types of Indiana premises liability cases are slip-and-fall accidents occurring in the winter months due to accumulated snow or ice on the ground. Snow and ice that accumulates on a landowner’s property create a serious hazard, and Indiana lawmakers recognize as much.

A Business Owner’s Obligation to Clear Snow and Ice

In Indiana, business owners have a general duty to clear their premises of snow and ice. What precisely a landowner’s duty entails is determined on a case-by-case basis. Generally, courts will look to whether the landowner exercised reasonable care in the maintenance of their property.

Under Indiana case law, when courts consider a winter slip-and-fall accident occurring on commercial property, they look to 1.) how long the snow or ice was present on the property, and 2.) the amount of notice the landowner had of the upcoming storm. For example, if a sudden storm deposits a surprising amount of snow, it may be reasonable for a landowner to take slightly longer than one would typically expect to clear their property of the snow. Courts may also consider whether the landowner had prior notice of a problem that had occurred in the past.

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Under Indiana premises liability law, property owners are generally not liable for injuries caused to trespassers. However, through Indiana’s attractive nuisance doctrine, a property owner may be liable when a trespassing child is injured on their land due to a dangerous object that attracted the child onto the landowner’s property. A recent state appellate decision illustrates the attractive nuisance doctrine.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s recitation of the facts giving rise to the case, the plaintiff and some friends entered a construction site after hours. The teens spent several hours at the site, drinking whiskey and smoking marijuana. Evidently, the construction crew had left several pieces of heavy construction equipment on-site. Several of the pieces of equipment had the keys in the ignition. The plaintiff initially removed one set of keys to prevent his friends from starting the machine and potentially hurting themselves. However, as the group was leaving, the plaintiff climbed inside a machine and began to drive it up a floodwall. The machine flipped over, and the plaintiff was seriously injured.

The plaintiff filed a premises liability lawsuit against the construction company, arguing that leaving the construction site unfenced created an attractive nuisance. In a pre-trial motion, the defendant argued that no reasonable juror could find that the plaintiff, a 16-year-old male, did not realize the risk playing with the machine. The court granted the defendant’s motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

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When someone is injured in an Indiana car accident, the accident victim is entitled to pursue a claim for compensation against any of the parties they believe were responsible for causing the crash. In the majority of cases, car accidents occur on public roads. After an accident on a public road, the motorists involved in the collision should call the police. The police will then respond to the scene, investigate the accident, and issue any citations if they are determined to be necessary. The results of an investigation conducted by the police can be very beneficial to an Indiana car accident plaintiff.

In addition to accidents occurring on public roadways, there are a significant number of Indiana car accidents that occur in parking lots, parking garages, or on other privately owned property. Because these accidents are not on public roadways, police officers may not respond unless there are serious injuries. However, it is essential that motorists involved in a car accident on private property obtain all the necessary information from the other drivers involved in the crash, including the driver’s name, address, insurance information, as well as the vehicle information, including the name and address of the owner (if the owner is not the one driving the car).

An accident victim may also be able to pursue a claim against the owner of the property where the accident occurred if the owner’s negligence contributed to the accident. For example, parking garages are poorly designed or improperly marked, creating a misleading situation for motorists. However, an Indiana accident victim must be able to connect the landowner’s negligence to their injuries by establishing a causal relationship between the two. A recent state appellate decision discussed a plaintiff’s car accident claim against a private residential community.

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