Written by Bob Hunt

Commercial property owners have had to learn that the concept of premises liability is an ever-expanding one. It seems that each year brings new cases showing harm or injury that an owner should have foreseen and taken action to prevent. But what about harm that might occur to someone on an adjacent property, neither owned nor controlled by the property owner being charged? Can a commercial property owner have liability for damages incurred on someone else’s property? They can in California. We are so reminded by a recent ruling from California’s Second Appellate District Court of Appeal (Annocki v. Peterson Enterprises, November 14, 2014).

In March of 2011, Terry Turner, a visitor from Oklahoma, went to dinner at Geoffrey’s, a popular Malibu restaurant. When he left the restaurant parking lot, he attempted to exit from the north driveway. Mr. Turner did not realize, nor did any signage inform him, that it was not possible to make a left turn exiting onto Pacific Coast Highway from that driveway. A center median prevented cars from crossing into the far lanes.

When he encountered the median, Mr. Turner attempted to back up so that he could correct his position and go to the right. Unfortunately, in doing so he collided with an oncoming motorcycle driven by Joseph Annocki. The motorcycle driver died at the scene.

Mr. Annocki’s parents brought a wrongful death and negligence suit against Geoffrey’s. At the trial court the defendants filed a demurrer (essentially, a motion to dismiss) on the grounds that they had no duty to post signs regarding any dangerous conditions. The trial court sustained the demurrer, finding that Pacific Coast highway was inherently dangerous, and therefore if a business had a driveway on such a dangerous roadway there was no duty to warn about it.

The plaintiffs appealed.

The Appellate Court noted that “In most instances, where there is no control over the premises, there is no duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent injury… Generally, a landowner has no right to control and manage premises owned by another… Thus, usually, a landowner has no duty to prevent injury on adjacent property.” Moreover, “… an adjacent landowner has no duty to warn of alleged dangers outside of his or her property if the owner did not create the danger.”

“But,” the court went on to say, “there are exceptions to the general principle.” “…the duty of care encompasses a duty to avoid exposing persons to risks of injury that occur offsite if the landowner’s property is maintained in such a manner as to expose persons to an unreasonable risk of injury offsite.”

“Here,” the Appellate Court observed, “defendant argues that it had no duty to control the condition of the adjacent roadway, and could not place signs on the public roadway to indicate only a right turn was permitted. Defendant is correct. However, our analysis does not end there.” The property was so configured that it allowed customers to exit in a manner that would be unsafe. Yet the restaurant took no steps to make them aware of that. It could easily have been done, and it wouldn’t have been an unreasonable burden on the restaurant to do so.

The court ruled that the defendants did have a duty to warn their patrons of the dangerous condition. Thus, the trial court’s judgment (dismissal) was reversed, and the case sent back for trial.

Bob Hunt is a director of the California Association of Realtors®. He is the author of Real Estate the Ethical Way.