Premises Liability: Store Safety and the Holidays

A lit up christmas tree, surrounded by gifts, in an empty beige room.

The holidays are here, and stores are bustling with customers. During this busy time retailers must prepare their stores for a safe shopping experience and avoid exposure from premises liability claims. 

Store Safety and Premises Liability

Many hidden dangers lurk when careless store owners are more concerned with moving inventory than keeping their property safe. Examples of these premises liability dangers include wet floors, falling inventory, poor lighting, and even criminals looking to prey on innocent shoppers. The National Crime Prevention Council provides great safety tips for last minute holiday shoppers.

For premises liability claims in Georgia, business owners and occupiers owe their customers a statutory duty to keep their premises and approaches safe. O.C.G.A. § 51-3-1. Whether a business owner exercises ordinary care in a particular situation is usually a question that must be decided by a jury if a lawsuit is brought for personal injuries. Robinson v. Kroger Co., 268 Ga 735 (1997).

In most cases, a premises liability claim can still be brought against the property owner even when the owner hires a third party to manage the property. This is called a “non-delegable duty.” However, if the owner surrenders full control to an independent contractor the landowner no longer owes the duties required by O.C.G.A. § 51-3-1. When this happens, the landowner is considered an “out of possession” landlord and the landowner will not be held liable for the third parties’ negligence.

Store Owner Responsibility

Despite these statutory duties, an owner or occupier is not an insurer of its customers safety. First Pacific Management Corporation v. O’Brien, et al., 184 Ga. App. 277 (1987). This means that the law requires the landowner to act in an ordinarily prudent manner to discover dangers and fix them. If the danger cannot be removed, a warning should be given. However, landowners are not obligated to warn against open and obvious hazards. For example, a business owner/occupier is required to warn customers when a floor is slippery from being mopped or recently waxed, but the business would not be required to warn a customer about rainwater near the store entrance during a storm. Roby v. Kroger Co., 219 Ga. App. 459 (1995).

The duty to keep a premises safe is not limited to physical defects on the property. Dangerous animals and persons can harm customers. If the conduct of an employee or third person is sufficient to pose threat of danger to customers, the business owner or occupier must act with care to intervene and prevent injury to innocent customers. A classic example of this is when a business is located in a high crime area and the business owner knows that innocent victims have been robbed in the past. A responsible business owner would hire security and install surveillance cameras to deter the criminals from preying on his customers. When the business owner does not act to deter the criminals from harming customers, the owner may be held liable for his or her negligence. Negligent Security Attorney Joel Williams has resolved several multi-million-dollar cases where innocent victims were harmed by others on a business’s property.

Customer Responsibility

Even though the owner or occupier of land must exercise ordinary care to keep his premises safe, the customer must also exercise care for his or her own safety. If the customer fails to exercise ordinary care for his own safety, his claim may be barred by the doctrine of contributory negligence. For example, if the customer sees a wet spot on the floor, then falls on it, he should not recover because he knew of the hazard and voluntarily encountered it. In Georgia, a Plaintiff cannot recover if he is 50% or more at fault for his injuries. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(g).

Premises Liability Claims: Superior Knowledge Rule

In all Georgia premises liability cases, the injured party must prove (1) the premises owner had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard and (2) despite the exercise of ordinary care the plaintiff lacked knowledge of the hazard. Georgia courts often refer to this as the “superior knowledge rule.” If the owner has superior knowledge of the hazard and the hazard causes the Plaintiff’s injuries, the business owner is liable. Custer v. Coward, 293 Ga. App. 316, 319 (2008).

If you or a loved one has been injured on a business property due to the carelessness of the business owner, contact the attorneys at Williams Elleby Howard & Easter for your free case evaluation by calling 833-LEGALGA or 833-534-2542. If your injuries are serious, you may be entitled to substantial financial compensation.