This is another in my continuing series of blogs about California personal injury cases that set precedents and established law across the U.S. Today, I discuss the seminal California Supreme Court premises liability case of Rowland v. Christian 69 Cal.2d 108 .
Traditional “Common Law” Categories of People Coming Onto Land And The Duty of the Landlord to Those Entrants
American Tort Law has always required landowners or lessees to protect people coming onto their property to some degree or another. If a person is injured while on the property of another, the law has required that the injured person be compensated for medical bills, pain and suffering, lost income and other damages if it can be shown that the property owner was negligent. American jurisdictions, however, have sought to balance the interests of landowners with the rights of persons injured upon their property. Traditionally, under the so-called “common law” that developed in the U.S. from the original English law, all states put persons coming onto property who sustained injury into one of three categories: Licensees, Invitees and Trespassers. Invitees were persons invited onto the property to “do business” and there with the owner’s consent such as patrons of retail establishments. Licensees were persons on the property with the permission of the landowner but, for their own purpose such as a repairman or even a social guest and, trespassers were people who had entered the property with no express or implied permission. The law required a property owner to safeguard the well being of invitees by making the property safe for their use. Therefore, landowners were charged with the highest duty of protection for invitees. With regard to licensees, landowners or occupiers were required to only protect and warn regarding known dangerous conditions on the property. Trespassers were afforded the least protection and the landowner was only rarely liable for “intentional, willful or wanton” conduct on his or her part which caused injury to the person there without permission.
Doing Away With the Why A Person is Present Upon Another’s Property and Imposing a Reasonableness Standard on the Duties of Owners of Property for Personal Injuries That Occur on That Property
Facts of the Case: A person was invited into an apartment as a guest by the lessee. While he was there, he attempted to use a faucet handle that broke, cut his hand and wrist and severed his tendons. He filed a claim for personal injury against the lessee claiming that she knew about the broken faucet handle prior to the incident and should have followed up with the apartment manager to get it fixed after reporting it broken. The owner of the apartment alleged on the one hand that she did not know the handle was going to crack and, on the other hand, that her guest had used the bathroom before and should have known that the handle was prone to breaking (i.e. an “obvious” condition) (seemingly contradictory allegations). The apartment owner filed a Motion for Summary Judgment asking the court to dismiss the claim based upon plaintiff’s status as a “social guest” “licensee” and the fact that she did not owe him a duty to make her property safe but, only to warn of known dangerous conditions.
Analysis of the Court: The court held the apartment owner responsible for this incident. In doing so, they decided that the traditional classifications of “invitees”, “licensees” and “trespassers” should be done away with and replaced by an overall rule that the property owner or occupier is responsible to any person coming onto their property for any foreseeable dangers that could cause injury. They set forth several elements which could be used to show such “foreseeability” and whether a duty is owed including the following:
- The location of the property
- The likelihood that someone would come onto the property in the same or similar manner as the person injured
- The seriousness of the potential harm that could be caused by the condition of the property
- Whether the landowner or lessee knew or should have known about the dangerous condition
- The difficulty in protecting against the risk of harm
- The extent of control that the property owner had over the condition that caused injury
Why is this case important to personal injury victims in California?
The Rowland case established a broader view of why we hold property owners responsible for injuries that occur on their land. To the California Supreme Court, it made no sense to provide a higher protection just because someone was “doing business” on the property as opposed to being invited there for a party or other social event or just “there to visit” with the owner’s permission. Both the business owner allowing the public into his store and the homeowner inviting guests over for dinner should be held to a standard of what a reasonable person would do under the same or similar circumstances. If a reasonable person would know that people invited over are likely to use a bathroom where a fixture is cracked and may break, causing them to cut themselves, then that property owner should be held just as responsible as a store owner who knows they have a broken clothes rack that might collapse on a patron. In addition, the case set out specific criteria for examining when a dangerous condition should be foreseeable and why the property owner should know to fix the problem before it causes injury. The Rowland standard of simply requiring property owners to exercise “reasonable” caution has now been either fully or partially adopted in many other states. This provides personal injury protection to many who would not have had it under the “traditional” rules.