The weather in Iowa has been wonderful most of November thus far but winter is not far away. And winter in Iowa generally brings a number of slip-and-fall accidents. Lots of slip-and-fall accidents occur on sidewalks when people are shopping. Many of the store retail locations do not actually own their property. So, can those non-property tenant owners still be held liable for slip-and-fall personal injuries?
A law school friend of mine wrote an interesting blog post on an Indiana slip-and-fall case that could have application here in Iowa. In the case he referenced a grocery store did not own the property. And not only did the store not own the property, but also a management company had been hired to make sure the sidewalks were clear and maintained during the winter. A jury ultimately held the grocery store liable for 25% of the fault for the plaintiff’s injuries. The grocery store appealed.
On appeal, the grocery store argued the duty of care for “Invitees” did not apply because it neither owned nor controlled the sidewalk in question. There was precedent in Indiana that tenants cannot be held to have a duty to safely maintain areas for which they have not assumed responsibility and over which a landlord has specifically retained control, including common areas like sidewalks. However, the Court disagreed with grocery store’s position in this case and held as a matter of law that, as the business entity that invited Jones onto the property, the grocery store owed some duty of care to the plaintiff as an invitee. In the Court’s opinion, the fact that grocery store did not own the property and the property owner, as opposed to the store, had contracted for snow and ice removal services did not summarily relieve the store of liability. The Court noted the duty of an invitor to exercise reasonable care for the safety of invitees is an active and continuing one, and that parties cannot contract their way out of their duty to exercise reasonable care with respect to third parties. The Indiana Court of Appeals accordingly affirmed the judgment of the trial court in favor of the plaintiff.
A similar result could occur here in Iowa. Stores must be aware of the active and continuing to exercise reasonable care with respect to its invitees. Retail locations should not automatically assume that hiring a management company to clear sidewalks relieves them from all responsibility for slip-and-falls accidents even as a non-property owning tenant.