California Appellate Decision Highlights Heavy Burden On Property Owners To Keep Their Premises Safe

Individuals and entities that own or occupy property have a legal duty to maintain their premises in a reasonably safe condition.  To comply with this duty, those who control the property must inspect the premises or take other proper means to ascertain the condition of the property.  If a dangerous condition exists that would have been discovered by the exercise of reasonable care, the owner and occupier of the property have a duty to remedy the condition or provide an adequate warning of it.

A recent decision from a California’s First District Court of Appeal highlights the heavy burden California courts impose on property owners with respect to the duty to maintain their premises.  In Staats v. Vintner’s Golf Club, LLC, the plaintiff was attacked by a swarm of yellow jackets while playing golf on a course operated by Vintner’s Golf Club, LLC. She sued the club for general negligence and premises liability, claiming that the club had a duty to protect patrons from yellow jackets by inspecting for nests and setting traps to prevent their formation.  Club personnel knew that yellow jackets could be found in the area and sometimes on the golf course, but they were not aware of any prior incidents in which yellow jackets had swarmed or stung any patrons.

The club filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the club owed no duty to protect its patrons from yellow jackets that came from an undiscovered nest on the course.  The trial court granted the motion, but the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the club’s duty to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition required the club to take steps to keep the premises free of yellow jacket nests.  The Court further stated that the measures an operator must take to comply with the duty depend on the circumstances, raising a question of fact for the jury.

On its face, the Staats decision addresses the very specific issue of yellow jacket abatement, but it highlights the broad range of dangers California courts expect property owners to address to protect patrons from injury.  It also serves as a reminder that there are certain tools property owners can use to limit liability with respect to their patron’s injuries.  For example, in the Staats case, the club could have strengthened its position by displaying yellow jacket warning signs or requiring patrons to sign waivers.  While these actions may seem like time-consuming burdens to businesses, they can go a long way toward limiting the risk of liability in a state where the appellate courts have taken the position that property owners are often in a better position to protect patrons than the patrons themselves.

For more information regarding premises liability issues, contact Rich Reese in LGC’s San Diego office.