Articles Posted in Premises Liability

The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the headlines for the past year, and has affected Washington, D.C. residents just as it has affected the rest of the nation. Many Washington, D.C. residents have fallen ill or even died from COVID-19, and many families are mourning loved ones but are unable to gather in-person to celebrate their lives. But amidst all this, personal injury accidents are still occurring in Washington, D.C. and across the nation—some totally separate from COVID-19 and some as a result. Some of these accidents, occurring in overcrowded and understaffed hospitals, raise questions about hospitals’ legal duty to protect patients.

For example, take a recent accident that made national headlines. According to the New York Times, an 82-year-old man was being treated for COVID-19 at a hospital when he was bludgeoned to death with an oxygen tank by his roommate at the hospital, another COVID-19 patient. The men were sharing a two-person room, and the victim began to pray one morning, angering his 37-year-old roommate, who then struck him with an oxygen tank. He was pronounced dead the next morning. The roommate was arrested and charged with murder and elder abuse. Bail was set at $1 million.

This is not the first time someone has been killed in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hospitals all across the country are overwhelmed, overcrowded, and understaffed, potentially setting the scene for incidents such as this. For example, the New York Times reports that in April of 2020, an 86-year-old woman died at a hospital when another patient shoved her for breaking social distancing guidelines.

Although Washington, D.C. landlords are responsible for maintaining their properties, D.C. law generally allows landlords to relieve themselves of liability for negligence through an agreement between the landlord and the tenant. If the parties clearly agreed to release liability, the court will generally uphold the agreement. However, Washington, D.C. courts have made it clear that exculpatory clauses in agreements are only construed to limit liability for negligence if the language in the lease clarifies that it was the intended effect. However, an agreement will not be enforced in cases of gross negligence, willful acts, or fraud. In addition, the agreement must apply and be intended to apply to the premises in question.

Under Washington, D.C. law, a landlord who has exclusive control of a building in which there are leased premises must exercise reasonable and ordinary care in managing that portion of the premises under the landlord’s exclusive control (such as a common hallway or bathroom). In the portions under the landlord’s exclusive control, the landlord is generally still liable for injuries because of a defective condition that the landlord fails to address.

In a recent case before one state appeals court, the court considered whether the landlord could be relieved of liability due to an exculpatory clause contained in the lease. The plaintiff in the case hit his head on a beam in the doorway, causing him to fall down the stairs. The plaintiff was the tenant in a commercial lease with the building owner. The plaintiff claimed that his fall was caused by the inherently dangerous condition of the staircase because the location of the beam was in violation of numerous building codes. In the lease, there was an exculpatory clause that stated that the lessor was not liable for personal injury to the lessee and others “whether the said injury . . . results from conditions arising upon the Premises or upon other portions of the Building, or from other sources or places.” The plaintiff filed a claim against the lessor for negligence and premises liability.

In this blog, we often write about a specific type of Washington, D.C. personal injury lawsuit: premise’s liability claims. The premise’s liability doctrine is used to hold property or business owners responsible for accidents on their property. For example, grocery stores that fail to warn customers of slippery floors can be held liable, or homeowners who invite visitors over who are injured on faulty stairs. This is an important doctrine; however, it is not without limits. In some cases, an individual might sign a waiver of liability, releasing a property or business owner from liability if they are injured.

For example, take a recent state appellate court case. The court’s written opinion indicates that in April of 2017, the plaintiff decided to join a gym. In executing her membership agreement, she signed a form that states, in part, “I understand and voluntarily accept full responsibility … for the risk of injury or loss arising out of or related to my use … of the facilities,” and “I further agree that [the defendant] … will not be liable for any injury … resulting from the negligent conduct or omission of [the defendant].” In September of that year, the plaintiff visited the gym and exercised on a treadmill. After her workout, she walked towards a trash bin to dispose of the towel she used to wipe down the equipment, but she tripped and fell on an uneven walkway and broke her wrist.

The plaintiff brought a premises liability claim against the defendant, her gym, alleging that they were negligent in maintaining the facility. The defendant moved for summary judgment, which the court granted due to the waiver agreement the plaintiff signed. The plaintiff appealed. On appeal, she argued that the trial court erred in enforcing the waiver because her injury was not connected to actually exercising or using the gym, but happened as she was walking. The court disagreed, noting that the plaintiff fell right after working out, while walking to throw away the towel she had used to clean the treadmill. For the court, the plaintiff’s injury was sufficiently connected to her use of the gym and was covered by the waiver of liability that the plaintiff signed. As such, her lawsuit against the gym could not move forward, and summary judgment was granted in favor of the defendant.

The difference between an independent contractor and an employee is an important distinction in Washington, D.C. personal injury cases because an injured person’s ability to recover may be limited based on the negligent actor’s status. The following case shows how the plaintiff’s ability to recover compensation from his employer was limited by the wrongful actor’s status as an independent contractor.

In that case, the plaintiff claimed that the defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of injuries he suffered while working on his property. According to the record in the case, the defendant owned and operated a construction business, and the plaintiff was an employee of the defendant’s company. The defendant sometimes offered employees work at his home outside of normal work hours. One day, the plaintiff and his coworker went to do maintenance work, and among their tasks, they were told to burn the brush in the yard. The plaintiff attempted to do so by standing on top of a large pile of logs and throwing gasoline on the brush. The brush “blew up,” causing him to fall back and burning his skin with severe burns.

The plaintiff claimed that the defendant was liable because he failed to supervise the burning of the brush, he had gasoline available to use, he did not train the plaintiff on how to properly use the gasoline, and he did not train his coworker on how to properly use the gasoline or supervise others properly. He also claimed the defendant was responsible for his coworker’s negligence acts under respondeat superior. The defendant argued he was not liable for any of the coworker’s acts because he was an independent contractor rather than an employee.

Summer is officially here, and soon, families will be heading to water parks where they can escape the heat, enjoy the water, and cool down for a few hours. Others with a taste for adventure may seek the excitement of a rollercoaster or a waterslide during their visit. These trips are usually filled with fond memories and amusement parks often do take the necessary precautions to adequately protect guests’ safety. However, when a preventable injury occurs, these parks can often be held accountable through a Washington, D.C. premises liability lawsuit. In addition, a recent case illustrates that amusement parks may also be liable for guest’s injuries under a product liability theory.

According to the recent opinion, a man brought a product liability claim against a water park after he was injured while going down a waterslide. The plaintiff had slipped from a sitting position on an inner tube and landed on his stomach. When the plaintiff splashed into the pool below, he hit his feet on the bottom of the pool, leaving him with a fractured pelvis and hip. Even though the plaintiff had ample evidence of his injury and the water park’s role in causing it, the trial court ruled against him in his product liability claim.

In front of the appellate court, the defense argued that their water park provided its guests with a service, and not a product, and thus the plaintiff’s product liability claim must fail. Because product liability claims can only apply to products and not services, the defense argued that patrons visit the water park to obtain a service involving the use of waterslides, rather than paying a fee to primarily use waterslides as a product.

Governmental immunity, historically referred to as sovereign immunity, is a legal theory that protects government personnel and agencies from civil lawsuits. The premise stems from the idea that governments would not be able to effectively function if they feared constant liability for all of their actions. However, to address the fundamental unfairness of this doctrine, many jurisdictions limit the amount of immunity that a governmental entity enjoys. These laws are generally referred to as “tort claims acts.” In Washington, D.C., individuals who believe they suffered damages because of the negligence of a government entity should contact an attorney to discuss their rights and remedies.

The U.S. Department of Education requires that teachers, principals, and other school administrators protect their students and provide them with appropriate educational environments. However, the law often protects these institutions from lawsuits. Additionally, lawsuits that can proceed often require plaintiffs to abide by burdensome filing and notice requirements.

Lawsuits against governments encompass many other complex issues. One issue is whether the potential defendant falls under the protected category. For instance, in some cases, a negligent university or college may enjoy governmental immunity protections, whereas another similar institution may not. This largely depends on the type of institution and the type of funding they receive from the government.

As part of a D.C. premises liability claim, a plaintiff has to prove that a defendant had the duty to protect the plaintiff from foreseeable harm. Under D.C. law, generally, a defendant is not liable to an individual for the criminal acts of a third party, unless there is a special relationship between the parties. Special relationships can include employers and their employees, landlords and tenants, and businesses and their invitees.

Generally, business owners have a duty to protect invitees from injuries inflicted by third parties if the owner could have known that such acts were occurred or were about to occur. Cases involving criminal acts have a heightened burden of proving that the act was foreseeable. In cases involving criminal activity, because of the nature of criminal conduct, D.C. courts generally require that plaintiffs prove that the criminal act was “so foreseeable that a duty arises to guard against it.”

In a recent case before one state’s supreme court, the court considered whether a bar could be held liable for a person’s injuries sustained in a fight in the parking lot at closing time. In that case, the plaintiff and a friend were at the bar, and went outside when the bar was closing. The plaintiff did not have any disputes with anyone in the bar while he was inside. As the plaintiff and his friend were crossing the parking lot, they got into a fight with other customers, and the plaintiff suffered injuries that left him permanently blind.

Homeowner’s insurance policies can be very advantageous for Washington, D.C. residents. It can protect homeowners from claims brought against them for property damage or bodily injury arising out of their property or tortious conduct. However, insurance companies are notoriously difficult to work with when an incident does occur, because they have an interest in paying as little as possible, and so they often deploy expensive legal teams to reduce their liability. Because of this, Washington, D.C. accident victims who decide to file civil suits against a negligent party may find themselves involved in litigation with the defendant’s insurance company first.

A recent case considering insurance policy provisions in another state highlights the importance of what a policy does and does not cover. According to the court’s written opinion, the insured purchased a homeowner’s insurance policy from his insurance company, which provided coverage for both personal liability and property damage. The policy contained an exception and did not cover the insured if a claim was made against him for damages arising out of a premises owned or rented by the defendant but not insured under the policy. The insured owned a cabin in Maine that was not insured under the policy and was the location of the tragic incident that sparked this lawsuit.

In the summer of 2015, the insured’s two children, along with two of their friends, went to the cabin to celebrate an upcoming birthday. In the cabin, they plugged in the cabin’s small generator the insured kept at the property to charge power tools. They ran this generator inside the cabin without opening any windows or doors, and ultimately all four died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

As more and more Washington, D.C. residents live in apartments, issues of landlord liability for injuries suffered on the property is of increasing importance. All residents expect to be safe when they are at home and may not worry as much about accidents in their living spaces as they do out in public. But a recent report out of New York City highlights that accidents can truly happen anywhere—including in individuals’ apartments—and how injured plaintiffs can recover against their landlords in some cases.

According to a major news source covering the New York incident, a landlord in the East Village decided to save some money and install a faulty gas system, rather than spending more money to ensure the system was safe. In 2015, the gas line caused an explosion on the landlord’s property, resulting in the tragic death of two men. In addition, the blast destroyed two buildings and injured over 12 other people.

Instances like the tragic story above are fortunately rare, but injuries caused by landlords’ negligence are not. While typically on a smaller scale than the large gas explosion, Washington, D.C. residents may be injured in or around their apartments from a variety of things, such as tripping over built-up garbage and litter on the walkways or stepping through a faulty stair. What many D.C. residents might not realize is that their landlord may be held liable for their injuries in these cases.

A statute of limitations refers to the time period in which a lawsuit must be filed. Knowing the relevant statute of limitations is essential, and it varies depending on the type of claim and where the claim is filed. The general statute of limitations for Washington, D.C. personal injury lawsuits is three years, as explained in D.C. Code § 12-301. However, some types of claims have shorter or longer statute of limitations. For example, the statute of limitations for wrongful death claims is two years. In comparison, Maryland has a three-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims and wrongful death claims.

Failing to file within the applicable statute of limitations will likely result in a dismissal of the claim, regardless of the merits of the claim. In some cases, the statute of limitations can be tolled. In other cases, the statute of limitations may be shortened based on an otherwise-agreed upon limitation. In a recent case before one state’s supreme court, the court considered whether a statute of limitations still applied despite a shortened limitation period agreed upon in a contract.

In that case, a tenant fell in the common area of her apartment complex. She later filed a claim against the apartment complex, alleging negligence and negligence per se, claiming that the complex failed to repair a crumbling curb, despite being aware of its condition. The complex claimed that the claim was barred by a limitations period that was included in her lease. The tenant filed the lawsuit exactly two years after her injury, and the claim normally would have been subject to a two-year statute of limitations. However, the woman’s lease contained a clause which stated that any legal claim against the complex was required to be filed within one year.

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