Imagine that you were working a project at work and left an important file at the office. You, being the awesome employee that you are, decide to swing by the office on a Saturday to pick up that crucial file. As you're making your way to your desk, part of the ceiling caves in and injures you. Naturally, you'd be immediately focused on getting medical attention, but soon thereafter, if you're like most people, reality sets in and you have to start thinking about who's going to cover the tremendous expense of your medical bills, lost wages, etc.
Most reasonable people would assume that your employer would be liable to pay for the injuries. After all, you were just ducking into the office, to pick up something necessary for your job when the injury occurred, and the injury occurred on their property because of something that was wrong with said property. But imagine, instead, that when you speak with your boss, your boss tells you that you were trespassing and that your company does not owe you a dime. This may sound crazy, but that's exactly what happened to a young woman named Amanda Beuhler, an employee of Buffalo Wild Wings.
According to reports, Ms. Beuhler dropped by her work on a day off to check her schedule. Unbeknownst to her, the floor had recently been de-greased and mopped, but not marked with a "wet floor" sign. As Ms. Beuhler made her way through the restaurant, she slipped on the unmarked wet area and broke her ankle. Clearly, someone had violated protocol. However, when faced with such an obvious mistake by their workers, a company can either accept responsibility and pay for their mistakes or they can go the other direction and try to exploit technicalities in order to avoid liability. By now you can probably guess which direction Buffalo Wild Wings decided to go.
Buffalo Wild Wings argues that Ms. Beuhler was actually a trespasser at the time of the slip and fall. On the face of it, you're probably thinking, "That's stupid." Unfortunately, as Homer Simpson would say, "Stupid like a fox." While it may seem absurd, it's actually a pretty decent legal defense to liability if Buffalo Wild Wings can convince a jury that she was trespassing. That's not to say that it's the right thing to do, but you can't help but begrudgingly admire the sand it takes to wage war on an injured workers in such an unabashed way.
In Texas, property owners can be held liable for injuries that result from dangerous conditions on their property. This area of the law is known as "premises liability." The underlying concept behind premises liability law is the notion that owners of real property (e.g. houses, parking lots, businesses, or any other real estate type property) are the ones who control the condition of the premises, therefore they are in the best position to fix dangerous conditions and protect visitors from harm. The tricky part is that the question of, "How far does a property owner have to go to protect visitors?," is answered differently depending upon who the visitor is.
Legally speaking, there are three categories of visitors for the purposes of premises liability: invitees, licensees, and trespassers. A property owner must go through different lengths to protect each class of visitor:
- Invitees: This class includes customers, employees, and contractors invited on to a property for the mutual benefit of both the visitor and the property owner. They are owed the highest duty under the law. Property owners have to actively seek out potential hazards and make invitees aware of them. That is why mopped floors in a store should always have a "wet floor" sign.
- Licensees: This group could include friends dropping by your house. They are the Goldilocks class, owed slightly less duty than Invitees, but more than trespassers.
- Trespassers: These folks do not have permission to be on the property. Short of a minefield, you only have to warn these people about the most unforeseeable hazards on the property.
That Buffalo Wild Wings would claim that she is a trespasser is pretty dubious. The only circumstances under which that would make sense would be if she was in an area of the restaurant, without permission, which she did not normally have access to. When I was younger, I worked in the restaurant industry for many years, and what she did was pretty normal.
All managers in the restaurant industry constantly preach about checking the schedule. In that world, missing a shift because the schedule came out on your day off is unacceptable; you're expected to find time to come in and see the new schedule on the day it's posted. Obviously, schedules are not posted in the public sections of the restaurant for customers to see, so there is really only one way for employees to get this info, and that is for them to go into the back office or kitchen area.
If that's what happened here, it strains credulity to suggest that Ms. Beuhler was legitimately trespassing. What seems far more likely is that she had every right to be in the place where her injury occurred, her employer expected her to be there, she was likely doing something that employees commonly do, and this whole trespasser argument is probably little more than Buffalo Wild Wings' attorneys trying to come up with a clever way to avoid owning up to their responsibilities.
The case is informative in that is shows just how far companies are willing to go to avoid fairly compensating the people who were injured on their property. If a dubious claim, like the claim that Ms. Beuhler was a trespasser, can further a company's case, I suppose they feel it's worth a shot.
To be fair, I should mention that Texas law does indeed say that there are some circumstances under which an employee can properly be considered a trespasser. For instance, if a worker is fired and they then come back onto the property (particularly in the back office) then they should likely be classified as a trespasser. Alternatively, imagine that someone works for the Toyota truck factory in San Antonio, and they have clearance to access the control room but not the engineering labs. If they wander into a lab and are injured due to a dangerous condition, they would rightly be considered a trespasser and Toyota wouldn't owe them much of anything.
Likewise, if Ms. Buehler was strictly forbidden access to, say, the kitchen, and she retrieved her schedule from the office and then wandered into the kitchen, then, sure, she is a trespasser for the purposes of premises liability. Again, though, having worked in the restaurant business for years, I can assure you that it is common practice for employees to drop into the restaurant to check the schedule on their day off. It is also commonplace for the waitstaff to walk throughout the kitchen because, by and large, the non-customer area of a restaurant is all free rein for the waitstaff.
The entire story illustrates the need for competent legal representation, even in the most seemingly minor instances. Companies deny the just claims of employees and others who incur injury on their property every day, because they can save money by doing so. There are a lot of people who get hurt and, when they attempt to hold a company responsible, are given a lot of lawyer talk for why the company is not going to pay for their injury. In many cases, people accept whatever explanation they are told, regardless of whether or not it makes sense, and simply go on their way. However, a good personal injury lawyer will laugh off nonsensical defenses, like a store employee allegedly trespassing when they were checking their schedule, and hold businesses accountable under the law for their reckless behavior.