Generally speaking, property owners have a duty to make sure that their properties are safe for visitors. If a visitor is injured on someone else's property, he or she may seek to bring a lawsuit against the property owner. The body of law that deals with these types of suits is known as premises liability law.
Premises liability law applies not only to homeowners, but also to small business owners, property managers of large commercial properties — such as shopping malls and hotels — grocery store owners, gym owners and bar and restaurant owners. Those who "occupy" a property — like a shop owner leasing a property in a strip mall or a tenant leasing a rental property — may also face liability for visitor injury.
In premises liability lawsuits, the injured party attempts to prove that his or her injuries resulted from the property owner's failure to make his or her property safe. Generally, to succeed in a premises liability case, the injured person must prove that:
- The property owner knew or should have known of the dangerous condition
- The property owner failed to repair and/or give warning of this dangerous condition
- He or she was injured by the dangerous condition
In most circumstances, property owners cannot be held responsible for injuries caused by conditions on their property that they did not know about or had no reason to know about. Those entering another person's property still are required to exercise reasonable care for their own safety.
Different Levels of Care
Property owners owe different duties of care depending on the circumstances under which a person enters their properties. Generally speaking, visitors fall into one of three categories:
- Business invitees
Property owners owe the highest level of care to business invitees, who are people who enter a property for business purposes. This broad definition includes, for example, those who enter a grocery store to buy food, shoppers who go to a boutique to buy a blouse and those who stop at a gas station to fill up their cars. Repairmen and other workers who are invited into a home to do work are also generally considered to be business invitees.
For business invitees, property owners must keep the property in a safe condition and must either repair or provide notice of any known dangers on the premises. As part of these duties, the property owner must regularly inspect the property for any dangerous conditions, such as water spills in store aisles or fallen merchandise blocking an entryway. Because of this duty to inspect, property owners may even be found liable for injuries that occur as a result of dangers they should know about.
Property owners owe the second highest standard of care to licensees, or social guests. These are friends, family members and others who enter a property for purely social purposes, like a birthday party or anniversary celebration. They also can include those who show up uninvited, like a neighbor or other friend stopping by unexpectedly.
For licensees, property owners must maintain the property in a reasonably safe manner and repair any unsafe conditions. These duties include an obligation to warn of known dangers on the property.
Although trespassers do not have permission to be on a property, property owners still owe them a limited duty to prevent intentional or reckless injury. For example, a homeowner would face potential civil liability for intentional injury if he set up a trip wire that would automatically set off a gun or other life-threatening instrument against a trespasser.
Once the property owner discovers a trespasser on his or her property, the property owner owes a duty to warn him or her of any known dangers that the trespasser could not detect with ordinary observation.
Special Duty Owed to Children
Property owners — particularly residential property owners who own swimming pools — must take special care to protect children who enter their property, regardless of whether the child is an invited guest or a trespasser. Additionally, under what is known as the "attractive nuisance doctrine," property owners must take special care to protect children from conditions on their property likely to attract children and present a danger to them. This includes not only swimming pools, but also trampolines, old appliances and any other dangerous condition likely to entice a child.
The property owner must take reasonable steps to either remove the dangerous condition from the property or protect children from the danger. In the case of a swimming pool, reasonable steps would include putting a fence around the pool with a locked gate.
Types of Premises Liability Cases
Property owners are liable for maintaining both the inside and outside of their premises. For example, a hotel owner has a duty to maintain not only the rooms and common areas inside the hotel, but also the sidewalks, entryways and parking lot outside of the hotel.
Slip-and-fall cases are some of the most common premises liability suits brought against business owners. Other conditions that can give rise to premises liability cases include:
- Broken or uneven sidewalks
- Inadequate outside or inside lighting
- Obstructions on stairways or in aisles
- Spilled water or other slippery conditions on floors
- Debris or other objects in aisles, sidewalks or other passageways
- Broken or missing handrails on stairways
- Uneven steps or defectively built stairways
- Poorly lit entryways or stairwells
- Malfunctioning doors or windows
- Dangerously or negligently displayed merchandise
Homeowners also can be held liable for any defects or dangerous conditions outside or inside their homes, including in their driveways or yards. Dogs also can be considered a dangerous condition on a person's property and a dog bite or attack can result in a premises liability suit against the animal's owner.
Contact an Experienced Attorney
If you have been injured on another person's property, you may be entitled to recover for your injuries. An attorney experienced in premises liability cases can review the circumstances of your injury and help you determine the best course of action to take. For more information, contact a knowledgeable lawyer today.