Visitor Question

Liability for injury on US Forest Service land?

Submitted By: Anonymous (Riverside, California)

Location: Mt Baldy, California in San Bernardino Mountains
Injury occurred on 2/17 at approx. 2:30pm on rock stairs near a Recreational Cabin.
Cabin is owned by a private party. Owner was not home.

Cabin is on land leased by United States Forest Service (USFS).
All forest service land is public land, not owned by owner.
Stairs are constructed of rock and probably old. Cabin was built in the 1930’s.

Stairs were partially covered by snow, but several steps completely crumbled when used. Adult male fell down the remainder of the steps and injured his right knee.

Tests are being run, unknown yet if just a severe sprain or a medical ligament tear.
Injured party in severe pain, unable to sit, stand or walk without pain.

Is the cabin owner liable for rock steps/stairs adjacent to cabin that are not maintained? Is USFS liable for rock steps/stairs not maintained? Can medical costs be compensated? Is additional compensation available? Thank you for any information you can provide.

Disclaimer: Our response is not formal legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. It is generic legal information based on the very limited information provided. Do not rely upon the information in our response, or anywhere else on this site, when deciding the proper course of a legal matter. Always get a personalized case review from a local attorney.

Answer

Dear Anonymous,

Your question presents an issue of potential premises liability against both a private party and the federal government. Let’s first consider premises liability under California law.

California code establishes that:

“[E]veryone is responsible . . . for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person . . . .:”

In other words, the owner or occupier of property has a responsibility to keep that property in a reasonably safe condition.

This means that someone who owns, possesses or controls property must maintain and inspect that property, repair any dangerous conditions on that property, and if the condition cannot be repaired, provide an adequate warning of the dangerous condition to visitors and guests.

As the California pattern jury instructions provide, in a premises liability claim or lawsuit, you would have to prove the following:

1. The defendant owned, leased, occupied, or controlled the property;
2. The defendant was negligent in the use or maintenance of the property;
3. You were harmed; and
4. The defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing your harm.

Keeping stairs in a proper condition would require the property owner or occupier to make sure that the stairs are safe for people to use, and to repair them when necessary.

Whether the property owner or occupier was negligent in maintaining his property depends upon several factors including the location of the property and the purposes for which it is used.

Who was responsible for maintaining the stairs?

In addition to a premises liability issue, your question also raises the question of who was responsible for maintaining the steps where the fall occurred.

Unfortunately, the information you provided with your question does not give us enough background to determine whether the cabin owner or the United States Forest Service is responsible for maintaining the crumbling stairs. So, let’s consider both.

A claim against the cabin owner would be just like a claim against any other private citizen. If the cabin owner has a homeowner’s insurance policy or commercial general liability policy, you could first make a claim with that insurance company.

If that claim is either denied or they refused to resolve the claim with you in an acceptable manner, then you would have no other option but to file a lawsuit.

A claim against the United States Forest Service would fall under the Federal Tort Claims Act which establishes the specific process you must follow when bringing a claim against any employee or department of the United States.

A full explanation of what you would have to do under the Federal Tort Claims Act is beyond the scope of this answer, but, in a nutshell, you would have to first make a claim with the United States Forest Service and the Forest Service would have to deny your claim. Then you could proceed with a lawsuit in federal court.

Finally, keep in mind that California is a pure comparative fault state. That means that if you bring a claim and are found to be partially responsible for your own injury, then your monetary recovery will be reduced by the percentage of fault a jury assigns to you.

Your situation presents several issues that could be addressed by an experienced personal injury attorney. An attorney can help you understand who you should bring the claim against and the process you will have to follow.

Learn more here: Injured on Public or Government Property

The above is general information. Laws change frequently, and across jurisdictions. You should get a personalized case evaluation from a licensed attorney.

Find a local attorney to give you a free case review here, or call 888-972-0892.

We wish you the best with your claim,

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