Premises liability lawsuits hold property owners responsible for damages arising out of harm taking place on their estate.
Property owners hold legal obligations to take reasonable efforts in providing safe surroundings for individuals visiting their land. Premises liability arises when landowners breach their duty of care.
Measuring Landowner Duties
A property owner’s standard of care and liability depends on whether the person harmed on his or her land was an invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser.
Invitees or business invitees enter land to provide economic benefits to landowners. Individuals who use land open to the public are also invitees.
- Store Customers
- Public Park Visitors
- Concert or Sport Spectators
Property owners must exercise the highest duty of utmost care to their invites to ensure safe visitation via affirmatively: correcting known land dangers; inspecting the premise for hidden property hazards; and posting clear warnings of known risks of harm.
Example: ACME store announces a Super Sunday Sale and has its employees mop the floors just before opening. The store owner notices the floors are wet but declines to post warning signs. Joe Customer enters ACME, immediately slips and falls, and strikes his head on a counter, causing permanent injury. The courts will hold the proprietor liable for Joe’s injuries.
Licensees enter land for their own purposes or pleasure and do so with express or implied permission from landowners.
- Social Guests
Proprietors owe their licensees lesser duties of care unless (i) property owners know of dangerous property hazards and fail to warn licensees; or (ii) harm is so obscured that licensees cannot discover them.
Example: Uncle Joe shows up at a landowner’s home to watch Sunday Night Football. The proprietor knew his refrigerator door was loose, but didn’t fix it. Joe opens the cooler to get a beer, and the heavy door falls on his arm and breaks it. Landowner is liable for damages because he recognized the appliance was dangerous and knew the defect was hidden enough that Joe could not find it.
Yet, licensees may become trespassers if they exceed consent set by property owners.
Example: Same situation as above, but the landowner locks the kitchen door and tells Joe to stay out of the room. Joe’s position shifts from licensee to trespasser when he enters the kitchen to get a beer, and he may not hold property owner for damages.
Trespassers are individuals who deliberately or unknowingly enter land without landowner permission.
Most states statues affirm landowners have no duty to make safe unlawful entries to land by trespass. Property owners, therefore, owe trespassers low to zero standards of care.
Example: Camper Joe enters another’s land to set camp for the night. Joe believed the land was public and set off into the night searching for water. Unfortunately, Joe fell in an open well and broke his leg. Joe cannot sue landowner for damages even though he never intended to trespass. Landowner further held no duty to warn Joe about the open well via signage.
Yet, landowners may hold duties to expect certain trespassers when their properties contain attractive nuisances.
Example: Joe Child is eight years old and jumps over landowner’s low fencing to swim in his pool. The proprietor knows children trespass on his property to swim on hot days; yet, he neglects to build a high fence to prevent unauthorized entry. Joe Child swims unattended, almost drowns and suffers injuries. Landowner may be liable for not making safe his attractive nuisance against child trespassers.
California and a few other states abolished invitee, licensee and trespasser distinctions for determining premise liability. Statutes in these states impute general duties of care on landowners to all individuals who enter their land.
Common Premises Liability Claims
Plaintiffs who are personally injured on unsafe private or public properties may file lawsuits against individuals, employees, government officials or landowners, alleging negligence from:
- Slip-and-fall accidents
- Animal attacks
- Construction site accidents
- Defective road, sidewalk, or parking lots
- Swimming pool accidents
- Careless security
- Inadequate facility maintenance
- Landlord Liability
Premises Liability Damages
Compensatory damages are actual damages that arise from a defendant’s negligent act. The courts will award general and special damages as substitutional remedies to return plaintiffs to positions they held before their injuries took place.
General Damages remedy non-monetary losses like pain and suffering or mental distress. These injuries arise naturally from accidents, and property owners should expect plaintiffs to pursue fair and reasonable compensation for general harm after learning about on-property injuries.
Special Damages cover medical expenses, loss of earning capacity, lost wages and any other feasible economic harm stemming from the accident. Plaintiffs put the courts and defendants on notice that special damages exist through their pleadings and presentation of evidence.
Punitive Damage awards are rare and unique in premise liability proceedings. The courts apply this remedy to punish defendants or to discourage property owners from repeating similar negligent acts. Landowners are normally exempt from indemnifying plaintiffs beyond compensatory damages unless plaintiffs can prove the property owner’s conduct was deliberate, willful and wanton negligence.
Contributory and Comparative Negligence
Most states statutes allow defendants to plead comparative fault in premises liability cases. This means plaintiffs may not recover damages from harm caused by dangerous property conditions if they were fully responsible for what took place.
Invitees, licensees, and trespassers hold legal duties to use reasonable care to keep themselves safe while occupying another’s land.
The courts can, therefore, mitigate (reduce) recovery by percentage of fault when both parties are negligent or when plaintiffs are partially responsible for their harm.
Contributory Negligence Example: Joe Visitor is 90% responsible for his injury, and the property owner is 10% liable. Regardless of damages, the courts will bar the plaintiff from recovery because his or her fault exceeds the defendants.
Comparative Fault Example: Joe Visitor was 25% liable for an accident, and total damages were $100,000. The courts will mitigate Joe’s damages by $25,000 and he will receive an award of only $75,000.