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Slip and Fall at School: Premises Liability for Public Institutions

SERVING TEMECULA AND THE SAN DIEGO METRO

Have you fallen and gotten hurt on poorly maintained stairs or walkways at a public school? You could have a premises liability claim against the institution. However, filing a liability claim against public organizations differs greatly from taking legal action against the average business. California has many laws that restrict when and how you can sue state agencies and organizations, which can make it hard to hold them accountable for the harm they cause. 

Difficult doesn’t mean impossible, though. With experienced help, you can still take action against public schools, government agencies, and other state institutions whose negligence harmed you. Here’s what you need to know about how premises liability works for public institutions in California and how to file a claim when necessary. 

Premises Liability at Public Schools

One of the foundations of civil law is the idea that certain parties have a duty of care toward others to keep them safe. Schools and other public institutions have many duties of care, some of which fall under the umbrella of “premises liability.” 

When comparing premises liability vs. general liability, premises liability is the idea that the party responsible for managing and maintaining a property has a duty toward invited guests to keep the location safe. “Invited guests” is a broad category. It includes anyone who visits a property with the explicit or implicit approval of the manager. For instance, teachers, students, and parents are all invited guests at a school, while members of the public are invited guests of a museum if they visit during open hours.

The duty to keep people safe means maintaining the premises at a reasonable standard and repairing unexpected dangers or warning visitors that they exist. For example, businesses must clearly mark when floors are slippery to prevent customer and employee slip and fall injuries. Similarly, building managers must keep stairs and handrails in good condition to ensure no one falls. 

This is true of public institutions just as it is for private businesses. Your city hall must maintain safe conditions for visitors with just as much care as a hotel, restaurant, or grocery store. It could be held liable for injuries if it fails to do so. 

There are four elements that must be present for a successful premises liability claim:

  • There must be a duty of care: A reasonable person must find that the organization was responsible for keeping the visitor safe in some way.
  • That duty of care must have been breached: The organization or its employees must have negligently acted or failed to act in a way that made the property potentially dangerous.
  • The plaintiff was harmed: The visitor was injured in a way that caused them material losses.
  • That harm was caused by the breach: The injury was specifically the result of the organization’s negligence in maintaining the property. 

For public institutions, there are a few additional hurdles a claim must clear under the California Tort Claims Act:

  • Statute of limitations: You can file claims against private organizations for up to two years after the incident. However, you must provide notice of a lawsuit against a public entity within six months, and you cannot file a claim unless you receive explicit permission to do so.
  • Filing requirements: Claimants like you need to file a claim with the public entity where you were harmed and then wait for the entity to respond before proceeding with a lawsuit, which is not true for private claims. 
  • Higher standards: Public entities are considered not liable for actions or omissions by their employees when those employees are immune from liability. Additionally, the entity must have known of the dangerous condition and had time to resolve it, or are not liable for injuries caused by the issue.

These restrictions are intended to protect government institutions from expensive, frivolous lawsuits. However, they also make it more difficult for people who have suffered legitimate harm to receive compensation when a government agency is negligent. 

When Are Public Institutions Liable for Accidents?

So, can you sue a school district in California? Yes, you can. Despite the limits placed by the Tort Claims Act, public institutions can still be held liable for accidents that occur on their property. In general, these entities are considered responsible for personal injuries caused by their employees’ actions or omissions if:

  • The injury was caused by the employee’s actions during the course of normal employment, and
  • The employee was not immune from liability during the action or omission due to exercising the discretion vested in them by their role.

For example, California law enforcement agents are typically considered immune from liability for the harm they cause during arrests or other actions. However, janitorial teams are not usually regarded as immune from responsibility for maintenance-related accidents because their job does not require them to exercise discretion. As such, public agencies can often be held liable for harm caused by faulty maintenance. 

How to Hold Public Entities Accountable for Accidents

If you have been harmed in an accident on the premises of a public organization, you may have grounds to pursue compensation for your injuries. However, filing claims against a government institution is significantly more complex than it is for other parties. It is in your best interest to seek legal assistance immediately to ensure you do not miss crucial deadlines for your claim. At Ellis Helm, APC, we are available to help you with premises liability at public institutions. Our skilled attorneys have experience with pursuing claims against a wide variety of defendants, so we are prepared to guide you throughout the process of holding the public entity accountable for the harm you’ve suffered. Learn more about how we can help by scheduling your consultation with our industry-leading personal injury law firm today.