CA Supreme Court Limits Duty Owed to Visitors Using Offsite Parking Lots

Businesses and other property owners owe a duty of care to individuals they invite onto their premises.  If someone gets hurt on property that you own or control, you may be responsible for the injuries sustained.  You certainly may be liable if your use of the premises exposed the person to a risk of foreseeable harm.  But what about injuries a person sustains in a parking lot that you do not own but your visitors use to access your premises?  According to the California Supreme Court’s recent decision in Vasilenko v. Grace Family Church, No. S235412 (Cal. Nov. 13, 2017) (“Vasilenko”), the answer is no: Those who place a parking lot in a location that requires visitors to cross a public street to access the person’s premises do not owe a duty to protect visitors from hazards occurring on the street. 

In Vasilenko, Grace Family Church (“Church”) was sued after a car hit Vasilenko while he jaywalked across a public street from the Church’s overflow parking.  Although the Church did not own or control the parking lot, which was located at a high school across the street from the Church, Vasilenko argued that the Church owed him a duty of care.  Specifically, Vasilenko argued that the Church, by selecting the location of the parking lot, was required to ensure the safety of its visitors who had to cross the public street from the parking lot in order to visit the Church.  In other words, even though the Church generally would not be liable for injuries that occurred on property it did not own or control, Vasilenko encouraged the Court to adopt a sweeping rule of liability because the Church created the danger by its selection of the parking lot location. 

In rejecting Vasilenko’s argument, the Court found that the burden on the Church that would result from the actions it would need to take to protect Vasilenko significantly outweighed the benefit to Vasilenkso.  Specifically, the Court found the Church, and others similarly situated, are limited in their ability to reduce the risk of injury from crossing a public street because California law prohibits people from erecting lights or signs on public streets and from controlling traffic by the use of crossing volunteers. 

The Court also found that it would be burdensome to require the Church to choose a safer parking option because it is difficult to predict the safety of a parking lot reliably.  The relevant factors affecting the safety of a parking lot vary by the hour and day of the week, traffic conditions, weather conditions, and the availability of alternative parking lots.  A parking lot on the same side of the Church that may be safe during rush hour traffic may also be unsafe at late hours of the night.  In light of these variables, the Court found that it would be extremely difficult—if not impossible—for a Church to establish the safety of a parking lot with accuracy.  Such a burden significantly outweighed any benefit to visitors who the Court found are in a better position to protect themselves from the obvious dangers of a public street. 

The Court’s decision in Vasilenko is important because it lays down definitive limits regarding the duty of care owed to visitors.  The Supreme Court’s decision is consistent with the general rule that a landowner has no duty to protect visitors from injuries suffered outside the premises—a rule that is prudent because landowners may have no control over what happens outside the premises.  This decision will provide landowners with much needed insulation from broadening premises liability lawsuits in California.

For more information regarding Vasilenko and its implications on your current matters, please contact us.