Each year, thousands of Illinois residents are injured because property owners neglect their duties to keep their properties safe. When an individual suffers an injury on someone else’s property, the property owner may be liable for the injured party’s medical bills, lost wages, permanent disability, pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life. For this and other reasons, property owners (i.e., restaurants, stores, gas stations, hotels, homeowners and government offices) generally purchase insurance to protect them in case such injuries occur.
If injured persons have any hope of holding property owners responsible for their losses, they need early investigation, information gathering and consultation with a lawyer knowledgeable in these matters. Most people unfortunately fail to recognize from the get-go that all of these are critical from right after the moment of injury. After literally handling hundreds of these types of cases, we have compiled a list of the eight (8) best ways to protect your rights when injured on someone else’s property. They are as follows:
- Properly Document The Incident That Caused Your Injury
- Photograph and/or Video Record The Injury Scene
- Send the Property Owner a Preservation Letter
- Find Out How Long the Hazard Existed Prior to the Injury
- Verify What Caused Your Injury & Avoid Blaming Yourself
- File Your Lawsuit In Time
- Do Not Go It Alone and Pick The Right Attorneys
- Call Our Office To Schedule a Free Consultation
Properly Document The Incident That Caused Your Injury
If possible, you need to create a paper trail immediately after you are injured. So many times we see the situation where an Illinois resident suffers an injury on another’s property but does not document the occurrence. The timely creation of an incident report might preserve facts or witness information that would otherwise be lost. The report may also provide credibility to your side of the story or contain favorable statements by the property owners, its employees and/or its agents that you can use in court.
For some property owners, it will be business protocol to complete an incident report, and that is fine. We would recommend that you thoroughly review any incident report to make sure it is factually accurate and complete, especially before signing such a report. If you believe important information is missing or that the property owner has “twisted” the facts, request that the report be modified so it correctly reflects how your injury occurred. You should consider making your own report for your safekeeping if the property owner refuses to modify its factually incorrect incident report. We further suggest that you obtain copies of any and all reports or documents from the scene that day. If you are dazed or unable to then think clearly following a mishap, be careful not to just guess or suggest possibilities of how you were injured.
Photograph or Video Record The Injury Scene
Statistics show that more than 90% of American adults own a cell phone and almost all of those phones are equipped with a camera. If you are injured on someone else’s property you should immediately take photos with your phone’s camera and/or even video record the scene where your injury occurred. Disputes generally arise regarding the hazard that caused the injury, the warnings (e.g., wet floor sign) that a property owner might provide at the scene or just exactly how the scene appeared at the time in question. Using photographs and videos in court to show exactly what caused you to be injured will make it easier for the jury to understand why the property owner is responsible for what happened.
In our experience the best photographs and/or videos are taken immediately following the injury. If the photographs or video are taken as much as the next day, then the property owner may argue that your pictorial evidence does not accurately show how the scene appeared at the time of the incident. Likewise, the property condition that caused your injury may be corrected or rectified if you come back to photograph the scene at a later date. The phrase “the camera don’t lie” is true.
We also recommend that detailed dimensions and measurements be taken at the scene (e.g., the height of a stair or the lip between two sections of sidewalk.) In a perfect world you would include a tape measure or ruler in the photo, but you might simply place something in the photograph for scale.
We also recommend that you back up the images or videos on a separate storage device. Several of our clients have already lost this type of valuable photographic evidence before setting foot in our office because their phones were later broken, lost or stolen(i.e. down the toilet.) The website Dropbox is one option for free storage of such data.
Send the Property Owner a Preservation Letter
In some cases, the property owner may possess documents, statements, their own video recordings or photographs and/or other evidence that shows how you were injured. If you do not act quickly, that evidence may be lost forever. As soon as possible, you must send the property owner a letter requesting that he/she preserve such evidence.
To put this in perspective, retail stores often have security cameras that record how you were injured. Such stores usually have a company policy to retain such footage for a certain period of time, such as 30 days, at which time it is erased or recorded over. Sending a preservation letter to such a store requires that the store then make a copy of the relevant footage or preserve the original footage of the incident. If the store should fail to preserve such footage, it may face other legal consequences that will assist you in making a recovery.
It is paramount that your preservation letter be specific to your injury. You will want to consider what evidence the property owner would have that you want preserved. We often ask that the property owner preserve footage of the scene for a few hours preceding the injury because we want to know how long a hazardous condition existed or how it was created. If you have concerns regarding how to draft a preservation letter, you likely need to contact an attorney immediately.
Find Out How Long the Hazard Existed Prior to the Injury
The injured person must often prove that the property owner knew or should have known of the dangerous condition that produced the injury. If the property owner does not admit that it was aware of the hazardous condition (which is often the case), then the injured person must present evidence that the property owner knew or should have been aware of it.
One of the best ways to prove that the property owner should have been aware of the dangerous condition is by using evidence that establishes how long the condition existed prior to the actual injury. The premise being that the longer the hazard existed, the more likely it is that the property owner should have been aware of that hazard.
One of the easiest methods you can use to discover this information is to just ask the property owner (or such owner’s agents or employees) how long the hazard had been present immediately after you are injured. We have found that these early inquiries produce the most candid responses because the social setting is more conversational than confrontational. If you are able to secure information about how long the dangerous condition existed prior to your injury, you may have just established your case.
Verify What Caused Your Injury & Avoid Blaming Yourself
It may sound obvious but if you do not know what caused your injury you may be prevented from making any recovery from the responsible property owner. Did you slip on water or was it oil or soda? Did you fall down because of ice or was it the water from that same ice that had melted earlier that day? Did you step into this hole or was it the hole one foot further up? These are the type of questions you need to have answers to before thinking of taking action against the property owner.
For instance, we sometimes see incident reports that state the individual fell and was injured, but the individual cannot say what caused the fall. If you truly do not know, we do not recommend that you make up a story. If you are able, we suggest that you take a look around after you are injured and investigate the scene. See if you are able to find the “culprits” or reasons that caused your injuries.
We have noticed over the years that some people for whatever reasons blame themselves when an injury occurs. “I was walking too quickly” or “I was not paying attention where I was walking” are good examples of when people blame themselves. We regularly determine that these statements may not be well based despite the injured person’s initial beliefs. We are not advising that one “cover up” the fact that the injured person is to blame for his/her injuries. We merely recommend that you verify what truly caused your injuries before you start pointing the finger at yourself.
File Your Lawsuit In Time
Illinois law limits the amount of time you have to file your lawsuit against the entity responsible for you injuries, and this is known as the statute of limitations. Who owns and/or controls the property where you were injured may be determinative of how long you have to file a lawsuit. If you file your lawsuit outside the time period within which you were required to commence it, you may be unable to recover any compensation despite how the strength and viability of your case.
In general, if you are injured on Illinois government owned or controlled property you only have one (1) year from the date of your injury to file your lawsuit against the State of Illinois. If you are injured on federally owned or controlled property, you have two (2) years from the date of injury to file your lawsuit, but must complete administrative filings before filing such a suit. Otherwise, if the property is owned or controlled by a private entity, you have two (2) years from the date you were injured to bring a lawsuit. While in theory this may sound simple enough, it is not. Ownership of property is not overly difficult to determine, but whether an entity is public or private may present a question without an immediately clear answer. The analysis becomes even trickier when the relevant property was leased at the time of the injury or when the injury occurred near a property line, or even if a maintainer or lessee of the property may be the true culprit.
We recommend that you consult an attorney at once if you have questions about the applicable statute of limitations for your case.
Do Not Go It Alone and Pick The Right Attorneys
We have seen too many cases become “losers” because the injured persons waited too long to contact an attorney for help. This is especially true with cases against property owners. These cases are tough enough to win in any event even when an experienced attorney is involved from the very beginning. There are many other pitfalls common with such cases that may impede your right to fair compensation. We believe the vast majority of the public should hire an attorney to help them prosecute a case against a property owner, but do so carefully and check their experience, qualifications and reputation.
We are certain that the majority of attorneys do not fully understand how best to proceed with litigating these types of matters due largely to their lack of experience. If you choose to hire an attorney you should confirm that the attorney has substantial experience handling such injury cases against property owners.
Call Our Office To Schedule a Free Consultation
Our Mount Vernon personal injury lawyers have handled hundreds of cases against unsafe property owners, and we continue to aggressively represent persons injured as a result of dangerous property conditions. We know just how to approach these cases so you have the best chances for the best results. Call our Mount Vernon personal injury lawyers at (618)244-5335 or toll free at 1-800-553-3125, or contact us via email to set up a free consultation at any one of our offices. If you cannot come to us, then we can come to you. We are dedicated to Illinoisans throughout the entire state. We look forward to meeting you in person and helping you along your road to recovery.