Children play water games at a public park

Injury at a Public Place: Who is Responsible?

Summer is officially in full swing, and that means many people will be spending long hours lounging at the pool with the kids, going on vacation to national parks and exploring nearby neighborhood parks with their dogs. While these summer adventures are a great time to make lasting memories, they are also important times to observe warnings and take safety precautions to minimize the risk of suffering an injury at a public place.

Even when exercising precaution, accidents can still occur. Some of the most common types of injuries to ensue in recreational areas are from falls. Unintentional drownings and injuries sustained on playgrounds or other equipment are also common in the summer months. In certain cases, the injured party may be entitled to damages to cover costs associated with the injury based on premises liability.

Premises liability is the legal concept that the owner or manager of a property has a degree of responsibility to keep the premises safe for persons on their property. This includes ensuring there are no unsafe or defective conditions present, informing guests of any safety hazards, and providing the tools that would be needed in the event of an emergency. In certain cases of injury or death caused by their negligence, the property owner or operator may be responsible for compensating the injured party or their family for damages, such as medical bills and lost wages.

Does Premises Liability Apply to the Government?

The short answer is: yes and no.

Things get complicated when an injury at a public place occurs on property that is owned or operated by the local or state government. Generally, government entities are entitled to immunity from lawsuits stemming from its negligence — a concept called “sovereign immunity.” However, many states have created laws to allow people to bring claims against state or city entities for injuries that occur on public property.

In Missouri and Illinois, there are a few exceptions to sovereign immunity. For example, a person is entitled to bring a claim against a public entity for dangerous conditions on its land. That could be an unsafe sidewalk or playground equipment that isn’t properly affixed to the ground. At a public pool, it could be ground that’s too slippery when wet or areas of the pool that are too shallow for diving without proper warning. If the existence of a dangerous condition can be proven, as well as the fact that a public employee had notice of the condition in time to have prevented the injury, a claim can be brought for injuries sustained.

At Your Own Risk?

We’ve all seen the sign posted beside a public pool: “No lifeguard present” or “Swim at your own risk.” Many state and federal laws work in tandem with city and county regulations to make public swimming pools as safe as possible. In Missouri, public pools that don’t provide lifeguards are required to display a sign that says, “Warning: No lifeguard on duty.” Sometimes a pool will even require patrons to sign a waiver before entering. But does a warning sign or waiver really absolve the premises owner of liability?

It depends. Not all waivers are enforceable or valid, and they may not prevent you from recovering damages in the event of an injury.

Deciphering legal waivers and being able to discern whether or not they are valid requires a premises liability attorney who knows what factors the court will consider in evaluating the validity of the waiver and deciding whether to enforce it. In Missouri, these types of documents can be invalidated for not being worded clearly or for being “hidden” within a long document, among other things. In certain situations, the injured person’s ability, or lack thereof, to understand what they are signing is also a factor that is considered.

Is There Personal Responsibility to Prevent Injury at a Public Place?

A visitor or invitee to a public place has a duty to act in a reasonable manner while on the premises. In order for the property owner or occupier to be held liable for someone’s injury, they should have known of the dangerous condition and failed to protect the visitor against the danger. If the visitor makes an irresponsible decision or acts in an unpredictable manner that results in an injury at a public place, it less likely that the property owner will be held 100% at fault.

In the case of a child, there is also the responsibility of the parent to consider. In Hartman v. Hartman, 821 S.W.2d 852 (Mo. 1991), the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that a reasonable parent standard could be adopted in cases involving an injured child. This standard implies that parents should not be held liable for a situation if their actions are in line with what an ordinarily reasonable and prudent parent would do under similar circumstances. For example, if a child becomes injured climbing over a large rock near the playground while the parent or guardian was observing from a bench, is it reasonable that the parent would have been observing from the park bench instead of holding the child’s hand? Due to the subjective nature of this standard, it is usually determined by a jury.

Do I Have a Claim for an Injury at a Public Place?

Every case is different, and an experienced premises liability attorney can assess your situation and determine your best course of action. The attorney will examine all aspects of your potential case, including but not limited to: the extent of the injury incurred, the circumstances under which you entered the property, the condition of the property, the activities of the property owner or occupier and the injured party, and the reasonableness of the property owner’s effort to repair or warn visitors of the dangerous condition that led to the injury.

The attorneys at Padberg, Corrigan & Appelbaum have represented countless people injured in accidents that could have been prevented by the property owner or operator, including instances of children injured in areas designed for child’s play, like parks. In a recent case, a 10-year-old girl was playing at a ballpark during a sibling’s softball tournament when she fell on a tractor implement that impaled her skull. Thankfully, the child survived, but her injuries were serious and required extensive surgery.

PC&A attorneys represented the girl’s family and successfully recovered damages from the ballpark by demonstrating they had negligently placed the dangerous tractor in an area where they knew or should have known children would be exposed to it because it was an area where children were known to play. Additionally, the ballpark failed to make the premises reasonably safe by removing the implement, barricading it, or warning visitors about it. A St. Louis County jury ultimately decided that the ballpark’s negligence contributed 100 percent to the child’s injury and awarded the family $120,000.

If you or a loved one sustains an injury at a public place in Missouri or Illinois this summer, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact the law office of Padberg, Corrigan & Appelbaum today to set up a free and confidential consultation.