Avoid Liability for a Visitor's Injuries at Your Work Site

October 27, 2008
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What if a visitor to your workplace gets hurt? Most states require companies to exercise reasonable care for the safety of people who visit their premises. Depending on state law, however, a court could examine whether the visitor bringing the claim exercised some level of reasonable care for his or her safety as well. In some cases, the court will place all of the blame on one side or the other; in other cases, the court will divide the blame between the company and the victim and allocate liability accordingly.

Consider the scenario below.

Facts: A contractor went to a lumberyard to pick up some materials for a job. After gathering the materials, he went to the so-called contractor’s desk. He didn’t notice a dolly that had been placed at the end of the desk. The contractor finished his business and walked along the front of the desk, intending to walk through a nearby set of doors. As he turned the corner of the desk, he tripped and fell over the end of the dolly, injuring his knee. The contractor sued the lumberyard for his injuries.

Decision: The court ruled that the lumberyard was 40 percent liable and the contractor was 60 percent liable for the contractor’s injuries.


Explanation: The court explained that, as the property owner, the lumberyard had to use reasonable care to protect visitors from “unusual dangers.” The presence of the dolly next to the contractor’s desk was an unusual danger because it was not something that someone standing in the contractor’s position would expect to find. Since the dolly had been intentionally left in a hidden spot by someone employed by the lumberyard, the lumberyard could not say it had used reasonable care to protect a visitor from an unusual danger.

The court noted, however, that the visitor was also expected to exercise reasonable care for his own safety. Since the lumberyard was a commercial warehouse that sold building supplies, a visitor should have expected that items such as dollies could be on the floor and should have taken greater care to observe and avoid such large items in his path.

Editor’s Note: In five states, including the District of Columbia, an injured party cannot recover for personal injuries if the injured party contributed to the accident – even if he or she only contributed to the harm to some minor extent -- let’s say, 5 percent. (The other jurisdictions that use the contributory negligence standard are Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia.) Most states have moved to a comparative negligence standard, however, which enables a judge or jury to apportion the fault of each party. The aggrieved party’s damage award is reduced or even prohibited, depending on how the injured party’s actions caused or contributed to the accident. Some states have different expectations when it comes to employers than they do for ordinary persons who cause harm, though. So consult an attorney about the type of negligence standard your state follows and its specific requirements for companies that cause harm to visiting persons.