Premises Liability: What Every Business Owner Needs to Know

Are You Liable for Someone's Accident on Your Business Property?

Businessman slipping on floor of office building
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If you run a business outside of your home and someone is injured while they are at your place of business you might be financially liable for their injuries even if you are not a landlord and only rent space from someone else.  And, if you work from home and have clients or customers, employees or delivery personnel on your property, you and your business or both might be sued if someone is accidentally injured while on your property.​

In some cases, even if your landlord has their own insurance if it can be shown that something your business did or did not do contributed to an accident on the premises, you might still be held liable even though it is not your property.  For example, if you lease retail space and a patron is injured because a ceiling tile falls down on them, if you had knowledge of the dangerous condition and did not report it to the landlord, you might be found negligent in full or in part for the accident.

Personal injury attorney Gerald Noonan represents individuals injured in accidents occurring on other people and business’ property in Massachusetts.  He states that although property owners are not required to have a place of “maximum” safety at all times, “A landowner must maintain his property in a reasonably safe condition and acting as a reasonably prudent person must consider the likelihood of injuries to others, the seriousness of the potential injury and the burden of avoiding the risk.”

That distinction is important (especially to defendants’ lawyers). If someone slips on a sidewalk during a freak snowstorm that dumps ice and snow everywhere, the landowner is not likely to be held accountable for the accident unless he/she fails to clear the walks within a reasonable time frame and to a reasonable degree.

Examples of Situations Where You Might Be Sued For Premises Liability

Slip-and-fall accidents are among the most common types of premises liability lawsuits filed against business owners.  These are accidents where someone slips, falls, and suffers an injury on a wet, sticky, slippery or damaged floor, sidewalk, curb, driveway, or even parking lot that belongs to your business or is controlled (used) by your business.

Trip-and-fall accident lawsuits often arise when someone trips on a surface or obstacle (i.e., a wire or a foreign object on the floor) and is injured anywhere on your premises.  This includes steps, outdoor mats, and uneven pavement and floors.

Poor lighting can also be the basis for premises liability cases.  For example, if your parking lot does not have lights or poor lighting due to broken fixtures and burnt out bulbs and someone trips in the dark, they may be able to file a claim against your business for their injuries.

Poor lighting is also often cited in “inadequate security” premises liability cases when a patron is robbed or assaulted or otherwise a crime victim because their safety was compromised by negligence (i.e., no warnings of dangers in the area such as not to leave valuables in your car, or no lighting or security cameras in known high crime areas.)

Another example of premises liabilities cases involves dog bites and attacks.  If you bring a dog to work and it bites or attacks someone, you can be held liable for the attack.  Additionally, if you allow people to bring their dogs to your place of business (think PETCO and PetSmart), you might also be subject to legal action against your business even though it was a customer’s dog responsible for the attack.

But I Have Homeowner’s Insurance - Won't That Protect My Business As Well?

If you work from home and have homeowner’s insurance be sure to check your policy.  You might find it has many limitations and exclusions that would leave you without coverage if an accident occurred while you were operating your business.  If you work from home call your homeowner’s insurance company and ask if your business is covered.

  You will probably find out that it is not, but the insurance company can likely tell you what additional coverage you need.  You should also check with your local municipality as some jurisdictions require you to carry certain types and minimums of business insurance to operate from your home.

Baltimore Attorney Clay M. Barnes says that accidents do not have to be extreme for someone to be seriously injured, “even a minor slip-and-fall accident can result in traumatic brain injuries, broken bones, and severe lacerations.”

What Happens if I Do Not Have Insurance?

If you are a sole proprietor in the eyes of the law, you and your business are one entity, and therefore, someone who sues your business can come also come after your personal assets.  Not having insurance does not mean you won’t have to pay someone who sues you successfully, it just means it could bankrupt you and your business.

Someone Faked a Fall on My Property – Can They Sue Me Now?

Barnes, who handles a wide variety of premises liability accident claims says, “An important factor in any premises liability case, in particular cases involving businesses, is whether the proprietor had prior knowledge of the hazard and failed to fix the problem. When the patron of a business (a mall or grocery store, for example) sustains an injury due to a slipping or falling while on the business’s premises, many people assume that the victim is automatically entitled to compensation. However, nothing could be further from the truth.”

While Barnes’ words are encouraging to business owners, you may still need an attorney to fight any claims lodged against you.  That’s another great reason to make sure you have the right business insurance – your business is sued in a premises liability lawsuit, good business insurance should cover your legal costs to defend you in court.