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Take the lead in identifying premises-liability risks

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Issue: Your organization has a responsibility to provide a safe environment for employees and customers.

Risk: Weak security efforts may lead to a "negligent security" lawsuit, an increasing problem for U.S. businesses.

Action: Dazzle your CEO with your versatility; pitch a plan to audit your work site for potential safety risks or code violations.

Your organization has a legal duty to maintain a safe environment for visitors and employees. But are you responsible if a customer trips in your store and breaks an arm? What if an employee is assaulted in your parking lot?

Under premises-liability law, the answers aren't simple. They depend largely on whether you either created or allowed a dangerous condition to exist. While that seems fairly straightforward, the laws vary from state to state, and from locality to locality, thus complicating the issue.

One thing is certain: Premises-liability lawsuits are rising. Eighty percent of all lawsuits against businesses involve someone injured on site, according to an American Bar Association study. Plaintiffs win 44 percent of such premises-liability lawsuits in state courts, with juries awarding winners $57,000 on average, says a National Center for State Courts study.

An increasing number of those suits revolve around something called "negligent security," in which a person is hurt on your property and then sues over your lack of security efforts.

Case in point: When an irate client wasn't allowed access to the business owner, he pulled a gun on the receptionist, forced her to go with him and sexually assaulted her in a remote area. He shot and injured her when she tried to escape.

She sued for premises liability and negligent security, and the Mississippi Supreme Court let her claim go to trial. One reason: When the receptionist tried to run away, she found the back door locked from the inside, which violated the city's fire prevention code.

Bottom line: Don't ignore this risk. The best defense is a good offense. You'll impress your boss with your versatility by suggesting the organization establish a regular schedule to review the work site for possible fire, building and safety code violations, and to correct them promptly. Put one person in charge of these periodic self-inspections.

Keep security equipment in proper repair. Document all your organization's safety efforts; those records could come in handy in case of a negligence lawsuit.

Final tip: Check into government safety and health agencies that offer work site safety consultation services. For example, OSHA's Consultation Program offers on-site safety consultations that are free and confidential. No citations or penalties are issued. For more information, go to www .osha.gov/dcsp/smallbusiness/consult.html.

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