When people are injured in California while they are lawfully visiting the premises of others, the property owners or operators may be liable to pay damages. However, the property owners or operators must have known or reasonably should have known about the existence of the hazardous condition. In Jones v. Awad, Cal. Ct. App. No. F077359, the court considered whether a homeowner could be liable for a step that did not meet city building codes when the homeowner had purchased the home after it had been built.
Factual and procedural background of the case
Theresa Jones visited Clyde and Julia Awad’s home in Dec. 2014. While she was there, she left the home through a door to the garage. Outside the door, there was one step that she had to take before she got to the floor of the garage. The step had a piece of carpet attached to it, and there was a welcome mat placed on top of the carpet. As Jones stepped down onto the step, she slipped and fell, injuring her wrist and humerus. Jones said that when she stepped on the rug, it felt like there wasn’t anything underneath it. She said that she believed that it must have slipped, causing her to fall. The Awads’s son was in the garage at the time of Jones’s fall. He testified that he did not see her fall but that the welcome mat was not easily moved and that it was still in its normal position after Jones’s fall.
After her fall, Jones filed a lawsuit against Julia and Clyde Awad. The only claim that she alleged against the couple was a single count of personal injury involving premises liability. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment in Sept. 2017 on the basis that Jones could not establish an element of her premises liability claim. In their motion, they argued that the step was open and obvious, the defendants did not have any actual or constructive notice that the step was unreasonably dangerous, and the plaintiff was unable to prove causation. The plaintiff subsequently filed an opposition to the motion, arguing that expert testimony by William Neumann showed that the step violated several building codes, which made it unreasonably dangerous and caused her injuries. The defendants filed a reply in which they restated their arguments.
The court issued a tentative ruling on the motion for summary judgment on Dec. 7, 2017. In the ruling, the judge tentatively granted the motion for summary judgment. On Dec. 8, 2017, the court held a hearing. The plaintiff then asserted negligence per se for the first time based on the building code violations. The court then ordered a hearing about whether building code violations could form the basis of negligence per se. The defendants then filed a rebuttal in which they cited authorities. They argued that negligence per se had not been presented in the pleadings and building code violations could not form the basis of negligence per se. The plaintiff filed arguments citing cases in which building code violations had been used to establish negligence per se.
The court issued an order granting the motion for summary judgment in Feb. 2018. In its order, the court found that there was not a breach of duty as a matter of law. It also found that the building code violations did not provide the basis for a claim of negligence per se since the homeowners did not build the home or hire the contractor who made the stair. Jones filed an appeal of the trial court’s ruling.
Issue: Whether the building code violations provided the homeowners with constructive notice that the step was dangerous, which caused Jones’s fall?
The plaintiff filed an appeal and argued that the trial court should not have granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. She argued that there was a triable issue of material fact regarding constructive notice of the dangerous condition of the step since it violated multiple building codes. The defendants argued that the building code violations did not provide them with constructive notice and that they had no actual or constructive knowledge that the step was dangerous.
Rule: To establish premises liability, a plaintiff must show that the property owners had a duty of care, that they breached the duty, that the breach was the proximate cause of the accident and injury, and that the plaintiff suffered harm as a result.
To establish premises liability in California, plaintiffs must show that the property owners or operators owed a duty of care to correct any hazards that they know about or reasonably should have known about and that they breached their duty. They must also show that the defendants’ breach was the proximate cause of their injuries and that they suffered harm as a result of the breach. All of the elements must be proven. If a plaintiff is unable to prove a single element, the case will be dismissed as a matter of law.
The court evaluated the facts based on each of the elements of premises liability, starting with the duty of care. As we have previously explained, the California Supreme Court in the seminal case of Rowland v. Christian, 69 Cal.2d 108 did away with the distinctions between types of visitors to property and established a duty of care to reasonably correct existing hazards that owners have actual or constructive notice of on their property or to warn visitors of their existence. The court found that the property owners did owe the plaintiff a duty of care and that the stair’s height was not open and obvious and did not obviate them of their duty.
The court next evaluated the breach element. Property owners are required to reasonably inspect their premises to check for dangerous conditions. If they identify dangerous conditions, they must take reasonable steps to correct it. If the dangerous condition is caused by a third party, then the owner must have constructive or actual notice of it. Property owners cannot be charged with having constructive notice of a danger unless there is some type of obvious feature which would serve as notice that a dangerous condition exists. The court found that the trial court was correct in determining that the homeowners did not have actual or constructive notice that the step was dangerous. The court then found that the plaintiffs failed to establish that the homeowners breached their duty of care and were unable to present a triable issue of material fact as to the claim of negligence.
The court then considered negligence per se. It first noted that negligence per se is evidentiary and is not pled as a separate cause of action. This meant that the plaintiff was not required to plead negligence per se as a separate count in her complaint and that the defendants had notice that it could be raised. However, the appeals court found that negligence per se did not apply in the plaintiff’s case. It found that the homeowners were not involved in the construction or design of the home, and building code violations do not automatically mean that the defendants were at fault. It also found that the violations were relatively minor and did not form the proper basis for negligence per se.
The court affirmed the trial court’s order granting the motion for summary judgment. This meant that the plaintiff’s case was dismissed.
Get help from the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers
If you have been injured while you were visiting the home of someone else, you might be able to recover damages for your injuries. Speaking to an experienced personal injury attorney at the law firm of Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers might help you to determine whether you have valid grounds to file a complaint. Contact us today to schedule a consultation by calling 866.966.5240.