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Colorado Supreme Court Blurs the Lines of Landowner Liability Under the Premises Liability Statue

July 24, 2013

Why This Case Is Important

The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that Colorado’s premises liability statute is not, as a matter of law, restricted solely to activities and circumstances that are directly or inherently related to the land. Rather, the premises liability statute may extend to any conditions, activities, and circumstances on the property for which the landowner is liable in its legal capacity as a landowner, thereby requiring a fact-specific, case-by-case inquiry in all premises liability matters.

Overview

Plaintiff Larrieu sued Best Buy Stores, L.P. for injuries he sustained at a Best Buy warehouse where he was picking up a freezer he had purchased. Larrieu and a Best Buy employee had removed the tailgate from a trailer that Larrieu had brought to transport the freezer. As Larrieu walked backwards carrying one end of the tailgate, he tripped over a curb and fell as the Best Buy employee (carrying the other end of the tailgate) continued to move forward towards the curb. The tailgate landed on top of Larrieu, and he suffered a compression fracture of his lumbar spine.

Best Buy removed the matter to Federal Court, where the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Best Buy, ruling that Larrieu’s injuries were not sustained in the course of an “activity inherently related to the land.” Larrieu appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, who sought certification from the Colorado Supreme Court. The ultimate question decided was as follows:

Does Colorado’s premises liability statute, C.R.S. § 13-21-115, apply as a matter of law only to those activities and circumstances that are directly or inherently related to the land?

The Colorado Supreme Court answered the foregoing question in the negative.

Holding

The Colorado Supreme Court refused to adopt Larrieu’s efforts to extend the premises liability statute to encompass “any tort that happens to occur on another’s property.” The Court further rejected Best Buy’s efforts to have the Court draw a hard line to define “activities conducted or circumstances existing on [a landowner’s] property” to mean only those activities or circumstances that are “directly or inherently related to the land.” Choosing a more mid-line approach, the Colorado Supreme Court held as follows:

The premises liability statute applies to conditions, activities, and circumstances on the property that the landowner is liable for in its capacity as a landowner…This analysis necessitates a fact-specific, case-by-case inquiry into whether (a) the plaintiff’s alleged injury occurred while on the landowner’s real property, and (b) the alleged injury occurred by reason of the property’s condition or as a result of activities conducted or circumstances existing on the property.

In other words, the premises liability statute includes activities or conditions that the “landowner” is conducting or creating on the property in its capacity as a “landowner.” The Court notes that a “landowner” has been construed broadly to “include individuals or entities who are authorized agents or persons in possession, including those legally conducting an activity on the property or legally creating a condition on the property.”

Applying this reasoning to the specific facts of this case, the Court found that Larrieu had in fact alleged that he was injured “by reason of the condition of [Best Buy’s] property, or activities conducted or circumstances existing on such property.” Because Best Buy, through its employee, was assisting its customer with loading a freezer purchased from the store, Best Buy may be liable in its capacity as a landowner. The Court did note, however, that further factual development was required regarding whether Best Buy had acted unreasonably given Larrieu’s status as an “invitee” on the property.

The Tenth Circuit has recently remanded the case to the District Court for further determination in accordance with the Colorado Supreme Court’s holding.

Lessons To Be Learned From This Case

The line between when a landowner will or will not be held responsible whenever an injury is not expressly caused by activities that are “directly and inherently related to the land” has been blurred by this decision. Every case will be different, and landowners will need to be cognizant of the potential for premises liability claims to arise from activities and conditions that may only tangentially be related to the land.

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