Businesses Face Potential For Increased Liability To The Public Under New Decision

by | Jun 11, 2011 | Business & Commercial Litigation, Litigation

A June 10, 2011 decision by the Indiana Court of Appeals raises the specter of increased liability for landlords and other businesses when a member of the public is injured on their property. Previously, a business owner who “invited” the public onto its premises for business purposes had a duty to act reasonably to protect the public from hazards of which the business was aware. For example, a grocery store had a duty to act reasonably to clean up a spill on the floor of the store before a customer slipped on it and fell. But the duty required that the store owner be aware that the spill existed. Similarly, a landlord had a duty to act reasonably to remove hazards existing in common areas of an apartment complex, like ice on the sidewalks, once the landlord was aware that the ice was there. But a new decision from the Indiana Court of Appeals requires a landlord to anticipate that ice would form in a parking lot and, by extension, may charge other types of business owners with a duty to “anticipate” the existence of hazards that may cause injury to the public.

In Bell v. Grandville Cooperative, Inc., the Court reversed a summary judgment granted by the trial court to the owner of an apartment complex in a case brought by a visitor to the complex who slipped and fell in the complex’s parking lot, injuring herself. The apartment complex indisputable removed ice and snow from the parking lot during the normal business hours. The plaintiff came to the complex in late afternoon for the purpose of babysitting her grandchild who lived there. When she arrived, there was no ice in the parking lot. The complex had plowed the parking lot days before, and piles of snow were at various locations around the lot. The evidence showed that during the day, the piles of snow would melt and then, at night, the snowmelt would freeze, forming ice on the lot, which would then either melt or be removed by the complex the following morning. When the plaintiff’s babysitting job was over during the night, and she went to the lot to get into her car, she fell on ice that had been created by the freezing snowmelt that night. Clearly, the apartment complex managers had no knowledge that the ice had formed that night.

In a case of first impression, the Court of Appeals remanded the case for a trial, holding that:

This was not a situation in which a sudden change in weather occurred in the middle of the night, or where ice formed suddenly and with little-to-no warning before a person slipped and fell on it. There was an established pattern of ice forming in the Grandville complex for several days, and for much longer than that even with respect to the area where Bell slipped and fell. Grandville did not do anything to counteract the possibility of ice forming on the premises between the hours of 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. … [T]here is a question of fact as to whether Grandville had actual or constructive knowledge of a dangerous condition on the premises—which does not require that they knew of the actual formation of the ice patch Bell slipped upon—and whether it acted reasonably in response to such knowledge.

Thus, the Court seemed to impose a duty on the landlord to anticipate the formation of a dangerous condition, and to take pro-active steps to prevent the hazard from being created, as opposed to removing it once it does exist.

It takes little imagination to construct numerous scenarios where a business hereafter might be required to “anticipate” that a hazard may exist sometime in the future, and take expensive (and sometimes unnecessary) steps to protect the public.  It remains to be seen what the eventual import of this duty to “anticipate” dangerous conditions might be to the business community.

More about Robert F. Parker

More about Robert F. Parker

Bob is an Of Counsel attorney at BCC and is resident in the firm’s Merrillville office. His practice is concentrated in commercial, professional liability, and personal injury litigation.