Being harmed on someone’s property is easily one of the most common accidents: following only hail and lightning damage claims on premises insurance. The many differing types of harm and trouble on premises is, however, much more complicated. Reggae has great lyrics describing things that go wrong. Bob Marley is probably among the best of the best: Marley’s songs “No more trouble.” When it comes to trouble and accidents that can happen on property, it’s interesting to estimate how many of those come from mistakes made by public officials. And of these groups of mistakes, the majority is very likely to come from mistakes in the building department. Though some (perhaps most) of these mistakes causing injuries may seem very apparent in retrospect, or under the hands of a talented premises liability lawyer, they are complicated cases to present in court. Part of the reason is that public officials enjoy a certain immunity and, like the song “No More Trouble,” it can be a very exacting process to demonstrate liability…despite showing a mistake. Let’s look at a premises liability case involving the City of New Bern:
II. Can your City be held liable for a premises injury?
The basic rule known by a premises liability attorney is very straightforward: if. “If” the city through its officials was negligent. This in turn goes to whether or not they exercised reasonable care in approving plans or not; next is whether or not the decisions that were made actually caused injury or damage. It’s never best to assume these are easy things to prove. Additionally, in trying to sue a city building or other department, you need the help of a premises liability attorney, to explore if there is a legal relationship (a duty) between the city and a person who has been harmed. What really makes the premises liability attorney develop expertise in this area is that there’s a special doctrine applied when a city (or its agents) is acting on behalf of the general public, as opposed to a specific person. This is called the “public duty” doctrine. The doctrine can shield the city from the results of making a proven mistake. Thus, and in many premises liability cases, an attorney is dealing not with a relationship between the city and the person who applied for the permit. Instead, it is often a person who is harmed by some event, which is triggered by an improperly issued permit. Put in the simplest terms, it means that if there the city has no legally enforceable duty, there will be no liability.
III. With over a million (1.3m in 2018) building permits every year…
… you can see that accidents on premises of all kinds have to constitute a large number of incidents, related to mistakes or even misrepresentations, on building permits. This potential sea of paperwork is why premises liability attorneys are such specialists in potential government liability. Gaining an understanding of the complicated design and code requirements in particular cases is complicated enough. Then, being able to apply those facts to specific injuries, calls for a range of expertise that few other attorneys than premises liability attorney experts have.
According to stats from the United States Census Bureau, there are typically around 1.25 million building permits issued across the United States every single year. Keep in mind, these building permits may represent risks of injuries that haven’t happened yet. Thus, you have a potential for any single jurisdiction to have thousands of permits that are in a sense ticking time bombs.
IV. Duty=Liability... Two Exceptions to NC’s Public Duty Doctrine
Judges are likely to point out that if there is no duty, there is no problem (A-B= no C). So, while your experienced premises liability attorney will connect the dots, to explain liability to a doubting judge, there’s a three-step liability process. This 3-step dance can be very complicated when dealing with building codes and their enforcement.
One fact to keep in mind is that even if a city or government does manage to maintain its immunity, they still hold important evidence of potential liability. As noted, it’s possible that the building permits – while incorrectly signed off – may also represent a design or omission problem by the person who submitted the permit. So, whether in gathering evidence, or establishing the range of liability between different parties, the premises liability attorney is essential to advance and protect your rights after a premises injury.
The premises liability attorney in this case did point to a specific north carolina building code statute, which seemed to imply that a city had a duty under that statute to certain expertise. The building code language pointed out by the trial attorney required cities to exercise “due care.” The city argued that this was only a generalized duty and didn’t provide a specific, legally enforceable duty in a premises liability case to specific, injured third parties.
To be successful in challenging this general protection against liability, the premises liability attorney has only two options, or exceptions. First, to show that there’s some special relationship between the injured party and the City itself. Second, there’s a possibility that the City had somehow created a “special duty.” This is often shown if the city officials had promised some special protection to person X. Arguably, this might come about through special rules or protections for people with vulnerabilities, such as disabilities.
Ultimately, in this case, it was almost impossible for the premises liability attorney to show an actual broken “promise.” There have been cases where promises were clearly made. Several of those cases involved firefighters who had assured someone that they would provide service in case of a fire.
The last, but ultimately unsuccessful, argument made against the city by the premises liability attorney was that their conduct was grossly negligent. This was a smart effort by a premises liability attorney to relate a “willful and wanton” standard that would in turn help show personal rights had been violated. There was some evidence to support this position, based upon evaluation by the North Carolina Code Officials Qualifications Board. Unfortunately, however, it was not quite enough to establish a duty or promise, so as to overcome protection of the city under the public duty doctrine.
It’s important that any time there’s a suspicion that harm on premises has been caused by building code violations, you immediately seek advice of an experienced premises liability attorney. If you, a family member or a loved one have been hurt in a premises accident—or have questions about premises insurance to cover an injury or damage on another’s property, business, or home, please contact us. You will speak with a premises liability attorney who can best answer your questions. There is never a fee for this initial consultation.