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The premises liability audit

Audit: proper glazing is essential
Audit: proper glazing is essential
photos by Rick Zimmerman

As a property owner, you may have wondered whether you are exposed to a potential discrimination lawsuit over inadequate building access for the handicapped or disabled. As a tenant, you may worry if your entrance walk is too often slick from wind-blown sleet or driven rain. As a visitor, you may be puzzled about the number of seriously discolored lobby ceiling tile, and unsure of the cause.

In many cases, concerns such as these can be properly addressed by the Premises Liability Audit.

The Premises Liability Audit is a thorough examination of business or residential premises to identify, quantify and/or prioritize resolution of any physical conditions that might bring liability risk to the owners, occupants or the public.

And just what sort of physical conditions bring liability risk? Well, we all realize that a parking lot sinkhole that suddenly swallows a few vehicles certainly brings liability risk. So too does a lightning-split tree dangling massive limbs over a public entryway. And it wouldn’t take more than a modest infestation of vermin to get our collective attention. But how do we conduct a thorough examination of all the far more subtle ways in which premises’ physical conditions can put us at risk?

The best method is to enlist the services of an architectural professional versed not only in building planning, design and construction, but also in building systems — such as structure, plumbing, drainage, heating, ventilating, air conditioning, telecommunications, etc. — and regulatory codes. Conducting an effective Premises Liability Audit requires comprehensive knowledge of how buildings are put together, as well as how we typically use them day-to-day. By means of something as simple as a complete walk-through and visual inspection of premises, a qualified auditor can often identify most significant sources of potential liability. With knowledge of construction means and methods, that auditor can also often offer cost-effective remedies or repairs to minimize or eliminate the risk of liability.

The Premises Liability Audit can address a broad array of premises issues, including the following:

• Is the property susceptible to flooding? Is its storm sewer system adequate? Does the property drain? Does it have firebreaks and sufficient emergency vehicle clearances?

• Does landscaping contain anything — thorns, burrs, berries, low branching, excessive needle or leaf litter, inappropriate pesticides or fertilizers, etc. — that might cause issues with occupants or visitors?

• Do parking lots provide for slow speeds, safe turning movements, adequate vehicle clearances, emergency vehicle access, proper handicapped parking facilities, and pedestrian safety? Do they drain adequately? Can they be effectively snowplowed? Are they signed properly?

• Are parking lot and walkway pavements slip-resistant and free of potholes or other tripping hazards?

• Do building entrances provide controlled access with adequate safety and security? Can the premises by visually monitored? Are entrances protected from vehicles and inclement weather? Are handicapped provisions in place?

• Are storefronts, glass walls, and glass rails of proper safety glazing? Does glass in the pedestrian zone have suitable ‘crash’ markings?

• Are walks, ramps, curbs and stairs throughout the premises safe, slip-resistant and in conformance with national and local building codes? Are suitable and sufficiently strong handrails provided?

• Are fire exits of adequate capacity and proper located? Are they effectively signed? Does all emergency exit hardware operate properly? Are all fire alarms and fire equipment in working order? Has the premises been inspected by the local fire and police departments (for general familiarization)? Have occupancy limits been posted, where appropriate?

• Are all potentially hazardous portions of the premises — such as machine rooms, elevator equipment rooms, electrical switchgear, compactors, emergency generators, etc. — suitably secured against unauthorized or accidental access? Are plans of such areas made available to the local fire department?

• Is there an emergency preparedness plan in place for the premises? Are premises management, security personnel, and occupants informed as to proper 9-1-1, fire or lock-down procedures?

• Are there sufficient public facilities — restrooms, drinking fountains, emergency telephones, etc. — for the intended occupancy?

• Do any building materials or elements show movement, cracking, settlement, displacement or deterioration? Are corrosion, leaking, efflorescence or staining present that might indicate flaws hidden within construction? Is there excessive ‘bounce’ to any floors or walkways?

• Are building roofs properly secured or ballasted against high winds? Do they drain properly? Is emergency access to the roof clearly signed?

• Do the building systems provide sufficient fresh air changes to meet local code requirements and occupant comfort levels? Do they insure that humidity levels are properly maintained, so as not to cause condensation or mold growth?

The primary benefit of a premises liability audit is the early detection of flaws representing liability risks, and the speedy resolution or correction of those flaws. The secondary benefit of a premises liability audit is that, should the premises be the target of liability litigation, it may well mitigate any liability by establishing a documentable pattern of diligence, proper intent and good faith.

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