Many “cocktail party” questions we get center around an area known as premises liability. That is, “what are my rights if I get injured on someone else’s property?” Or, worse yet, “what happens if someone gets injured on my property?” Such questions evoke what is commonly referred to as “premises liability” and, like just about everything, as many facets.
As with all other area of injury law, there are two primary issues in any claim: (1) who is liable; and (2) what are the damages? This article addresses only the first issue, liability. (Cases involving property owned by multiple parties, subject to lease agreements, under temporary construction or control of others, and the like will have to be discussed in a separate article). The focus here will be on the injured party, and we will assume none of the mentioned nuances are at play.
It has always been the case that a landowner could be held responsible if he was deemed negligent in the maintenance of his property. The determination of negligence hinges on whether the defendant breached a duty he owed to the injured party. In the area of premises liability, the level of duty owed under the law depended upon the “status” of the person injured. That is to say, who is it that was injured, and why were they there?
Traditionally, the law has classified persons entering the real estate of others into one of three distinct classes: (1) invitee; (2) licensee; or (3) trespasser. The duty owed to each by the landowner is different. An invitee is typically someone who is invited onto the premises for a business purpose, or for their mutual benefit. That invitation can be express, or it can be implicit. For instance, by virtue of owning a business open to the public, the invitation of patrons into the business is generally implied. Such business invitees are owed the highest duty. A landowner generally must take reasonable steps to discover dangerous conditions on the premises and either fix them, or provide adequate warning, so as to prevent injury. A failure to do so will likely lead to liability.
Trespassers are on the opposite end of the spectrum and are owed the lowest standard of care. A landowner generally owes trespassers no duty, other than to refrain from willfully injuring them, once aware of their presence. (Setting traps to injure suspected trespassers, for instance, is not a right – it is likely to lead to civil liability or even criminal charges). An exception exists for children, who might not have the life experiences to understand and appreciate the dangers of certain conditions that an adult would. If a property provides easy access to things such as a swimming pool or trampoline, which are deemed particularly attractive to children, the general rule of non-liability may not apply – even if that child is trespassing. This special doctrine of “attractive nuisance” is also beyond the scope of this article.
Licensees fall somewhere in between invitees and trespassers. These are loosely defined as people who have permission to enter property for their own curiosity, entertainment, or convenience. Examples may include utility meter readers, mail carriers, or solicitors. As with trespassers, a landowner cannot take action to injure a licensee. But unlike with invitees, landowners are not required to locate and fix dangerous conditions on their property for the benefit of licensees, but they must take reasonable steps to warn of known, latent dangers on the property.
Whether an injured party is classified as an invitee, licensee, or trespasser is key to determining whether there will be legal liability for injures that result from dangerous conditions on someone’s property. As social norms have evolved, specific cases in each state have continued to shape and transform this area. For instance, social guests traditionally were deemed licensees, meaning that business customers were owed a higher duty of care than friends you have over for a cookout. Today, however, many states now treat social guests as invitees and hold property owners to the highest standard of care in looking out for the safety of their guests.
Whether you happen to own a business with lots of traffic, or simply have a home that you own or rent, you need to make sure you have adequate insurance to cover the injuries of anyone who might get injured on the premises. If you are someone who has been seriously injured on the property of another, seeking medical treatment is always the most important priority. If you think your serious injury was the result of a dangerous condition on the property of a negligent landowner, a qualified personal injury attorney can guide you regarding your rights such as the personal injury lawyer locals trust.