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Hard Lessons: When Hurt on School Grounds

Introduction

Police are hardly ever going to be thought of as “trespassers” on property. On the other hand, premises liability lawyers are aware of the many times that injuries on property affect people who are there for apparently legitimate reasons, but without a ‘technical’ invitation.

This is an especially interesting case where the person/police who was hurt on the property – and in the performance of a public service – was injured by the alleged negligence of…another set of public officials: a public-school district (New Hanover). When you stop to think of it, there are an incredible number of workers who may have the best of reasons to be on another person’s property. They may be from the county, state, animal control, law enforcement, assessors, or any number of other employees, just trying to do a good day’s work.

That this really was an interesting case, was conceded by the north carolina Supreme Court itself: they described it as what’s called a case of “first impression.” This meant that the issue had never been dealt with before. These kinds of unusual cases are why it’s important to talk with a premises liability lawyer as soon as possible, after an injury. As in this case, where North Carolina Worker’s Compensation was also an issue, there were actually many different claims for damages made by the police officer.

II.  Invitee vs. Licensee: When Police Answer a Call

We are going to leave aside the issue of whether or not (or more accurately, “when”) police officers can ever be trespassers. A closer case is whether or not a police officer entering property does so because they’ve been apparently invited to go there, or they have some “licensee” status. The bottom line: if police were regarded as the invitees, the premises liability lawyer had won the case at a state supreme court level. A licensee is someone who has been invited under the property, but is there for his own purposes. An invitee, on the other hand, has a specific invitation and property owner has a higher obligation to such an invitee: especially, and obligation to warn of obvious and non-obvious risks. This is the coverage sought by the premises liability attorney in the case of this responding police officer. Also, the way the trial court had approached the award for the police officer reinforced this difference. The jury had awarded $20,000 for the injury to the police officer as an invitee. The trial court overruled the jury’s verdict, despite the premises liability attorney’s objection. The trial court judge ruled as “a matter of law” that the police officer was not an invitee, but a mere licensee.

III.   Design Done Wrong

At 26 years of age, the police officer (Stewart N.) involved here could’ve had a long and successful career: and hopefully still will, given the help of an experienced premises liability attorney.

There had been a spate of burglaries around the school that summer. Worst of all for one of the responding police officers, was to be the rain. Unknown to this officer, the slippery conditions on dark stairs were to cause him a serious injury, which would seriously affect his career. Stewart N., working for the City of Wilmington PD, responded with his fellow uniformed partner to a silent alarm.

The accident occurred on an upper ground level, accessed by an exterior metal doorway, just off of the school field house. The stairway was later described by the premises liability attorney as about “13 to 14 inches from the wall of the building.” This construction had negative effects for lighting and its safety design. For whatever reason, there was no handrail at all on the building side of the stairway, and there was only the single handrail on the side of the stairs away from the building. There was also a bottom rail, running parallel to the handrail, just above the treads on the stairs. It was dark, and Stewart had to carry a flashlight in one hand, as he was staying alert to the possibility of a burglar.

After radioing in that the upper level stair was locked, Stewart began walking down the stairs carefully. Because the steps were so narrow, he had to walk sideways. At some point, he doesn’t quite remember, he slipped on the stairs. Premises liability attorneys recognize that these accidents are often obscured by broken memories. This is especially true given the darkness and rain in this particular situation. The officer’s quick fall began a precipitous slide on his back, down the narrow steps, repeatedly hitting his back and buttocks. Because of the way the horizontal rail ran, it allowed the little finger of his left hand to become wedged as he fell: at some point, this wedging effect hung his body in a downward position, and put all the weight on that little finger. The premises liability attorney went on to prove that the damage to that little finger were painful and permanent, with a 55% physical impairment.

IV.  Where’s The Fire?

The school district had wanted the North Carolina Supreme Court to adopt what’s called the “firefighters’ rule.” Contrary to the public perception of wanting to protect public officials such as firemen, the firefighters’ rule actually does the opposite. The school district, ironically, in this case wanted to use the firefighters’ rule as the North Carolina standard: this would have had the effect of prohibiting any liability for public service and emergency responders who were injured on people’s property, from suing for that injury.

A premises liability attorney will concede that a police officer, entering another person’s premises under color of law, doesn’t easily “fit neatly into either the invitee status or the licensee status.”

  • But the premises liability attorney lawyer also argued the harder policy question: isn’t a police officer owed the same duty as any person who entered at specific invitation of the landowner?

The Supreme Court agreed, and extended premises liability protection to the police officer.

Conclusions:   

Premises liability attorneys have seen people at their best and worst, when it comes to injuries on property. As this case helps demonstrate, the foreseeability and knowledge of dangerous conditions is something that premises liability attorneys help keep in the forefront of awareness. In addition to the engineer used by the premises liability lawyer, was also evidence of the skill of the officer.  If the school district had simply posted a sign on the steps, warning people to be careful, or even prohibiting entry, a very different result might have resulted. After all, the court of appeals had itself been split on how to handle this particularly hard case.

A typical defense move in these cases, successfully opposed by the premises liability attorney in this case, is to allege that the victim was also partially negligent. For someone who has been severely injured, this often adds an extra sense of emotional and legal difficulty. “If only I had…”. In order to fully recover from these events, the most important thing to do is not to recriminate oneself, but to seek advice of an expert premises liability attorney. If you, a family member or a loved one have been hurt in an accident related to your work, including if you are a public servant of any kind, please contact us.  You will speak with a premises liability attorney/lawyer who can best answer your questions.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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