Henkel v. Norman – Private Property Owner’s Duty to Warn

When it comes to premises liability, it doesn’t matter if you are the owner of a big-chain box store or a modest property in the suburbs. Property owners have a duty to keep premises reasonably free of hazards. Failing this, the property owner must offer adequate warning.
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Failure to do this resulting in injury could prompt a civil lawsuit.

Our Montgomery fall injury lawyers know the mere fact that someone suffers an injury on-site is not proof of negligence on the part of the property owner. Hose v. Win-Dixie Montgomery, Inc. 658 So.2d 403, 404 (Ala.1995). What must be shown is the premises owner failed to use reasonable care in maintaining its premises in a reasonably safe manner. Injured parties bear the burden of proof in these cases.

Liability can be negated when a dangerous condition was “open and obvious” and the injured party failed to exercise reasonable care to protect themselves. Additionally, a property owner may avoid liability if a warning is given that is deemed sufficient.

Most often, we think of slip-and-fall cases as occurring on commercial properties – and they often do, especially in grocery stores, gas stations or other areas where there is frequent foot traffic. However, there are also a fair number of cases that arise from injury on private property as well.

One of the more common of these in the south is pool area liability, where a property owner fails to properly secure the open body of water from child access. However, slip-and-falls can occur on private property as well. Take for example the recent case of Henkel v. Norman, before the Texas Supreme Court.

Here, a mail carrier in Houston was delivering mail on a colder-than-average day in which the National Weather Service had indicated there would be a hard freeze. The defendant homeowner was aware of ice in the neighborhood because her daughter had fallen in the street earlier that morning.

The mail carrier walked up to the home through the front yard, handed the homeowner her mail and before he turned to walk away, the homeowner said, “Don’t slip.” At which point, he took two steps and slipped on the icy pavement of the homeowner’s sidewalk.

The mail carrier suffered injuries, and sued the homeowner for failure to maintain reasonably safe conditions on the property. While the mail carrier likely may have secured workers’ compensation benefits, as the injury occurred in the course of his job, he was also free to pursue a third-party premises liability claim without breaching the exclusive remedy provision of workers’ compensation law.

The case might have been successful, were it not for the warning issued by the property owner seconds before he fell. Although the lower courts wrangled about whether the warnings was sufficient (timely or specific enough?), the Texas Supreme Court ultimately ruled in the affirmative.

The court found that, “A property owner’s warning to an invitee of an unreasonably dangerous condition is adequate if, given the totality of the surrounding circumstances, the warning identifies and communicates the existence of the condition in a manner that a reasonable person would perceive and understand.”

Although the property owner did not specifically warn of ice, it was cold out that day, a hard freeze had been forecast and the mail carrier was walking on a snow-dusted sidewalk. A warning of “don’t slip” indicated a dangerous condition on the ground, which the court found to be sufficient enough for the mail carrier to act.

Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 1-866-942-9315 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.

Additional Resources:
Henkel v. Norman, Aug. 22, 2014, Texas Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Burlington Coat Factory v. Butler – Alabama Appeals Court Weighs Retail Store Liability, Aug. 15, 2014, Montgomery Injury Lawyer Blog