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Premises Liability & Duty of Care

Successful premise liability claims are going to be predicated on the ability of your attorney to establish a strong link between your quantifiable injury and the defendant’s breach of legal duty.

The very first step in determining whether you have a claim is figuring out whether the defendant owed you a legal duty, and then further the legal extent of that duty. Property owners who oversee the operation of spaces open to the general public are going to owe a high duty of care to patrons to ensure the premises is safe for routine use.

In some cases, that duty of care extends beyond simply the property owner. It may involve a construction firm or contractor or even manufacturers of certain products.

Such was the case in Crabtree v. BASF Building Systems, LLC, recent premises liability claim reviewed by the state supreme court of Alabama.

Here, the plaintiff had been a patient of a doctor whose office was situated on the top floor of a medical complex. That complex – and the parking deck – was owned by a company called Mobile Infirmary Associates. This was one of the parties he filed suit against when he fell in the parking lot after an appointment, causing him to suffer severe injuries.

At first, that was the only defendant named. But in several subsequently amended complaints, the plaintiff named the construction firm that had laid the polyurethane material onto the deck where he fell, as well as the general contractor and the manufacturer of that material.

Problems with the slickness of the top deck’s surface had apparently been known to the medical facility administrators for years. The primary reason there were problems was that the material, called Sonoguard, has to be laid a certain way in order to work properly and provide a proper amount of traction to maintain safety. The plaintiff here alleged that the defendants had a duty to inspect the application process of the Sonoguard to confirm it had been properly installed. Instead, he alleged the parties negligently and wantonly failed to inspect the installation of the material, making the premises unreasonable dangerous and unsafe, which proximately caused his injuries.

The claim against the medical complex and the construction firm was later settled out-of-court. A summary judgement was then entered in favor of the general contractor. That left the manufacturer as the only remaining defendant.

The manufacturer argued that it did not owe a duty of care to warn the plaintiff of potential harm. Initially, the trial court agreed, granting a summary judgment in the company’s favor. However, the court subsequently entered a second order indicating that the primary reason for granting the summary judgment was not only based on a lack of evidentiary support, but also an issue pertaining to the statute of limitations. In other words, the plaintiff had waited too long to name the manufacturer as a defendant.

The plaintiff appealed this order, and the appellate court reversed the earlier judgment, finding that the plaintiff had used reasonable diligence in naming the corporation’s predecessor as the defendant as soon as they became aware of the firm’s involvement. The court found that the company was involved in overseeing the installation of the product, and its employees failed in their duty to adequately do so.

However, the defendant appealed this finding to the state high court, again on the statute of limitations ground and questioning whether there was substantial evidence to support the plaintiff’s claims.

While the high court denied to hear the argument regarding the statute of limitations, it did review the earlier ruling regarding the plaintiff’s alleged failure to provide substantial evidence to support his claims.

The question at the heart of the case was whether the manufacturer assumed a duty. In this case, the duty would have been to inspect the installation of the Sonoguard material. The lower court had made this an issue of fact, as opposed to a question of law to be determined by the court.

With this in mind, the high court noted that manufacturers of a product are not ordinarily responsible for the way in which that product is installed. Although the manufacturer did have representatives engaged in on-site visits where the product was being installed, this did not translate to the assumption of responsibility for the product’s application. Rather, the purpose of these visits was to answer questions or resolve issues as presented by the contractor, and to point out problems as noticed. However, the manufacturer’s site visitor testified that his job was not to ensure quality control.

Ultimately, the high court agreed with this stance.

The years-long legal wrangling in this case reveals how complex premise liability can be. The primary take-away is that there may be more than one possible defendant against whom you can pursue damages in a negligence claim.

If you are seeking a personal injury lawyer in Western North Carolina or the Upstate of South Carolina, contact Grimes Teich Anderson LLP. Call 1.800.533.6845. No Attorney Fees Until You’ve Been Paid.

Additional Resources:
Crabtree v. BASF Building Systems, LLC, December 2013, Supreme Court of Alabama
More Blog Entries:
North Carolina Building Codes Substandard, Report Finds, Sept. 23, 2013, Charlotte Premise Liability Lawyer Blog

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