Can you sue if you're injured on public or private property?
It's a beautiful Saturday morning and you drive over to Frank Howard Field at Clemson Memorial Stadium to watch the Clemson Tigers play the South Carolina Game Cocks.
As you're walking to your seat on the lower level, you trip on a broken step and fracture your foot and wrist. You're taken to the Oconee Memorial Hospital where you receive treatment, along with a bill for $13,000. What's more, you're forced to take 3 months off from your job as a landscaper while you recover.
Can you sue someone for your injuries?
In South Carolina, a property owner may be held liable under premises liability laws for certain injuries sustained on their property.
Let's take a closer look.
What is premises liability?
"Premises liability" is a legal term that refers generally to the legal responsibility of an owner of real property for the injuries someone sustained while on the owner's property.
There are countless situations that could lead to a premises liability lawsuit:
- Amusement park accidents
- Dog or other animal attacks
- Slip and falls
- Swimming pool accidents
- Toxic torts
- Inadequate building security
Premises liability is not limited to businesses and commercial property, it extends to residential properties as well.
Determining whether a property owner is liable for a plaintiff's injuries in South Carolina
To establish that a property owner is liable for your injuries, you must prove that:
- The property owner owed you a duty of care
- The property owner breached the duty of care, and
- The property owner's breach caused your injuries.
The nature and scope of the duty of care owed by a property owner in a premises liability action are determined by the classification of the visitor at the time of their injury.
South Carolina recognizes 3 general classifications:
|Classification||Definition||Duty owed by property owner|
|Invitee||An invitee is an individual who is invited or permitted to enter the premises for the benefit of the property owner (for example, a customer in a grocery store).||A property owner owes an invitee the highest degree of care, which includes the duty to locate and fix (or provide a warning about) any dangerous conditions on the premises.|
|Licensee||A licensee is an individual who is on the premises with permission from the property owner for their own convenience, curiosity, or entertainment (for example, a social guest).||A property owner owes a licensee a duty to use reasonable care to conduct activities on the land so as not to harm the licensee, and to warn the licensee of any concealed dangerous conditions or activities which are known to the property owner.|
|Trespasser||A trespasser is an individual who is on the premises without permission from the owner.||A property owner only owes a trespasser a duty to refrain from willfully injuring the trespasser.|
The vast majority of plaintiffs in premises liability cases are classified as invitees or licensees.
What's the difference between an invitee and licensee?
Let's look at a couple of hypothetical scenarios to help clarify the different duties owed to invitees and licensees:
Beverly enters a grocery store to purchase a gallon of milk. While walking down the aisle, she slips on a puddle of water and fractures her hip. Beverly sues the grocery store for damages.
At trial, evidence shows that the grocery store employees didn't know about the puddle of water. Evidence also shows that the puddle of water had been on the floor for 6 hours before Beverly slipped.
In the above hypothetical, Beverly is an invitee because she is in the store for the primary benefit of the owner. Accordingly, grocery store employees had a duty to identify and fix or warn about the dangerous condition. Because the employees failed to do so, Beverly can recover damages.
Beverly visits her friend Alice in Alice's condominium. While walking down the hall to the bathroom, Beverly slips on some spilled water and fractures her hip. Beverly sues Alice for damages. At trial, evidence shows that Alice was unaware of the puddle of water.
In the above hypothetical, Beverly is a licensee because she's visiting Alice for primarily her own benefit. Accordingly, Alice's duty to fix or warn about dangerous conditions is limited to those conditions that she knows about. Because Alice didn't know about the spilled water, Beverly can't recover damages.
What is the attractive nuisance doctrine?
Although property owners in South Carolina typically aren't liable for injuries suffered by trespassers, there's 1 major exception.
Under South Carolina's "attractive nuisance doctrine," a property owner can be held liable to a trespassing child if:
- A dangerous condition created by the owner exists on the property,
- The condition is especially attractive to children,
- The owner has knowledge of the dangerous condition and the likelihood that children will trespass on the property, and
- The injury is reasonably foreseeable.
The most common example of an attractive nuisance is a swimming pool. Other attractive nuisances include:
- Sharp objects found in junkyards
- Partially-constructed homes
Defenses to premises liability claims
There are 3 defenses that are commonly raised in premises liability claims:
If a visitor voluntarily and knowingly assumes the risk of the dangerous condition, then the property owner is not liable for any injuries that result.
For example, a mountain biker who signs a waiver expressly assumes the risks associated with the mountain bike park.
Defendants often argue that they're not at fault because the dangerous condition was "open and obvious." In other words, the plaintiff should have seen the dangerous condition and avoided it.
In South Carolina, a property owner is not liable for physical harm caused by an open and obvious dangerous condition unless the property owner should anticipate the harm despite such obviousness.
South Carolina follows the modified comparative fault rule, which means that the plaintiff's damages will be reduced by their percentage of fault. What's more, if the plaintiff is 50% or more at fault, the plaintiff won't be able to recover any damages.
It's common for a plaintiff to be considered at least partially at fault for a premises liability accident. For example, if a customer is running into a retail store after a rainstorm and slips on some rainwater, the store may be liable for failing to clean up the water or put out a mat, but the customer will likely be partially responsible for running into the store.
Damages available in a South Carolina premises liability case
In South Carolina, plaintiffs may be able to recover 3 types of damages in a premises liability case:
- Economic damages include the monetary losses caused by the accident (medical expenses, lost wages, property damage)
- Non-economic damages include the non-monetary losses caused by the accident (pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium)
- Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant and are only available in cases where the defendant acted willfully or recklessly
Injuries sustained in premises liability cases can be significant. Fortunately, most homeowners insurance policies and commercial liability policies cover premises liability damages.
How long do I have to file a premises liability lawsuit in the Palmetto State?
South Carolina has a statute of limitations, which sets forth the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit. If you fail to file a lawsuit by the deadline, you are permanently barred from filing the lawsuit.
For most premises liability cases, the statute of limitations is 3 years. In other words, you have 3 years from the date of your injury to file your lawsuit.
If you sue the government (perhaps you were injured at a public park or town library), you must do so under the South Carolina Tort Claims Act. Section 15 -78-10 of the South Carolina Tort Claims Act gives plaintiffs 2 years to file a lawsuit (although it can be extended to 3 years if the plaintiff files a verified petition within 1 year).
Need a lawyer?
A personal injury lawyer helps individuals who have sustained injuries in accidents to recover financial compensation. These funds are often needed to pay for medical treatment, make up for lost wages and provide compensation for injuries suffered. Sometimes a case that seems simple at first may become more complicated. In these cases, consider hiring an experienced personal injury lawyer. Read more