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Keeping People Upright: Protecting Your Business from Premises Liability Lawsuits

Fred Cohen
Fred Cohen

Every small business owner needs to anticipate unforeseen risks to the bottom line, one of which is the potential for premises liability lawsuits.

Even though many businesses recognize that safety is crucial for employees and customers alike, and take steps to prevent dangerous conditions from developing, accidents can happen.

While employees are typically covered for their injuries by workers compensation, lawsuits filed by visitors who are injured in an accident can be costly.

It is possible to prevent injuries on your premises, however, by implementing safety policies and procedures. There are also ways to minimize the financial impact of personal injury lawsuits.

Premises Liability at a Glance

In a business setting, premises liability law is designed to protect customers, vendors, and to some extent, even trespassers. In short, as a business owner, you are responsible for the safety of any individual who enters your establishment, regardless of whether or not you own the premises. While a landlord can also be sued for negligence, commercial leases typically include provisions making safety the responsibility of the tenant and that indemnify the landlord. For purposes of this article, let's assume the business owner is sole the target of a lawsuit.

One of most common accidents that result in premises liability lawsuits are slip-and-falls. This is a term used by personal injury attorneys in cases in which an individual slips or trips and falls on the premises and the business owner is liable. These accidents arise from a variety of dangerous conditions such as wet floors, torn carpeting, poor lighting, cluttered aisles or other hazards inside the building. In addition, injuries can also occur outside when visitors slip and fall in the parking lot because of rain, ice or snow, and other hazards, or trip on cracked public sidewalks.

Grounds for a Premises Liability Lawsuit

In order to have grounds for a premises liability lawsuit, an individual must demonstrate that the accident was caused by a dangerous condition of which the business owner was aware. This requires showing that the owner created the condition, knew the condition existed and was negligent in rectifying it, or that the condition existed long enough for the owner to discover and correct it prior to the accident. These cases often hinge on whether the business owner acted with care to prevent a slip and fall, and whether the customer was careless by failing to see or avoid the condition that caused the accident.

Other Incidents

Premises liability lawsuits are not limited to slip and fall accidents and can also arise from other dangerous conditions such as a customer being injured by merchandise that falls from a shelf or even an assault by an employee or visitor. In addition, a business owner who violates a building code can be found negligent if the violation leads to an accident on the premises. In short, business owners who fail to take precautions to prevent a wide array of potential accidents will invariably be faced with a personal injury lawsuit. Not only can these lawsuits be expensive to defend, they can also damage the business's reputation.

Preventive Measures

The best way for a business owner to avoid premises liability lawsuits is to prevent the occurrence of accidents. This can be accomplished, in part, by implementing safety policies and procedures. First, it is the responsibility of the business owner as well as the employees to maintain safety on the premises by keeping an eye on unsafe conditions. If hazards are spotted, it is essential to take immediate action to remedy the situation, whether a spill, ice or snow on a walkway, a ripped carpet or any other potentially dangerous condition. Moreover, it is the owners duty to train the employees so that they know how to handle these circumstances. Finally, it is crucial to warn employees, customers and other visitors about the potential hazard.

Mitigating Circumstances

In order to recover damages in a premises liability lawsuit, the claimant must show that the owner's negligence caused the injury. While dangerous conditions often result in accidents, visitors can also be injured because of their own carelessness. In some cases, the amount of damages will depend on the extent to which the claimant is at fault for the injury. An individual cannot collect damages if he falls because he was not watching his step, and the owner was not at fault.

Obtain General Liability Insurance

Any business that engages the public on its premises, whether customers, clients, vendors, delivery people, or any other visitors, should obtain general liability insurance. In the event that a personal injury lawsuit is brought against your business and the claimant prevails, he or she may be entitled to compensation for lost wages, medical bills, pain and suffering and the like. In addition to providing coverage for such damages, depending on the amount of insurance, a general liability policy can also cover the cost of defending these claims. By not having adequate liability coverage, a business can be driven into ruin by a large judgment.

The Bottom Line

A small business needs protection from the potential of premises liability lawsuits. By implementing policies and procedures to keep the establishment free of dangerous conditions, accidents can be prevented. In addition to taking precautionary measures, business owners need to prepare for the eventuality of lawsuits by obtaining a general liability policy. Ultimately, it's a business owner's duty to keep their premises safe as well as to protect the viability of the business.

Image Credit: Monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images
Fred Cohen
Fred Cohen Member
Fred’s management and leadership experience spans across the information technology, legal and marketing sectors, from founding a tech startup which was acquired by a NASDAQ-traded company to practicing trusts and estates as a partner at a Long Island, NY law firm. In addition to his management functions as President of Zola Creative Media, Fred leads the company’s programming team in the development of the company’s core technology and infrastructure including an array of exclusive features and site tools for attorney websites such as the Site Manager, LegalVault and content publication services.