Injury on Public Land: Who Is Liable?

Posted by & filed under Premises Liability.

Usually, when someone is injured on someone else’s land, it may give rise to a personal injury claim under the theory of premises liability. However, if the premises on which your injury happened belong to the government, you may not be able to obtain compensation, unless the facts fit a very specific pattern. The government is immune from specific types of lawsuits, so you may be out of luck.

Premises Liability

Generally, a landowner does owe a duty of care to the people who come onto their land, though it varies depending on their status as to how broad the duty is. There are three classes of visitor in South Carolina, each of which requires a different level of care, as defined by prior case law.

  • Invitees are the highest category. These people are usually on the property serving some purpose for the landowner – for example, customers in stores almost always qualify as invitees, because they are there to purchase things and make the landowner money. The duty of care owed to an invitee in South Carolina mandates that the landowner exercise reasonable care for the invitees’ safety, as well as warning them of any dangers not readily apparent.
  • Licensees are the middle category. These are most often social guests, such as partygoers. For licensees, a landowner does not need to inspect the property or go out of their way to make it safe, but they must warn visitors about any known dangers.
  • Trespassers are fairly self-explanatory, and a landowner owes them only the duty to refrain from attempting to injure them through negligence or malice.

For example, if you are a guest in someone’s home, and you fall down stairs that the landowner knew were rotten (but failed to warn you about), you would likely have a case in premises liability. However, if you were a trespasser, you would have no case, because a landowner does not owe a trespasser the duty to warn.

Governments and Sovereign Immunity

People are injured on government property relatively often. Public sidewalks are government property, for example – if someone trips and falls due to one being in a defective condition, they could, in theory, bring suit against the city or state government that owns the sidewalk. However, most of the time, this is not possible.

The reason these claims are often barred is because of a legal concept called sovereign immunity, which holds that the federal government is completely immune from any suit that could result in liability (this idea was later held to be applicable to lesser governments). The rationale behind sovereign immunity is partly inherited – at common law, the king was unable to be sued, after all – and partly because of public policy concerns. If a government could be sued for every little infraction, lawsuits would entirely consume the resources of that government, which is a recipe for disaster.

In 1946, Congress passed a law called the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), of which most states (South Carolina included) have since passed their own versions. The FTCA permitted, for the first time, situations in which federal employees could be sued for torts like wrongful death and personal property that they committed during the scope of employment. South Carolina’s tort claims act expressly states in Sec. 15-78-40 that except in rare situations, state entities are generally liable just like private individuals. However, later in the law there is a list of situations where sovereign immunity still applies. Also, certain towns within the state are not bound by the state’s act; they have their own regulations as to sovereign immunity if an accident occurs on city or town property.

Contact An Experienced Attorney

Regardless of whether you were injured on a city sidewalk or on the steps of the capitol building, you may be entitled to compensation, and your odds of receiving it are increased with competent legal representation. The skilled North Charleston premises liability attorneys at Callihan & Syracuse have a long history of success in these cases, and will work with you every step of the way, from beginning to end. Contact us today to discuss your case.