Premises liability is a type of law that deals with the legal principles used to hold landowners and/or tenants responsible for dangerous conditions that exist on their property and cause injuries to persons on the property. Common premises liability cases include situations where a property owner fails to properly maintain their property or to warn visitors of hazards that can’t be fully mitigated or eliminated. A typical premises liability case may involve a slip and fall, assaults that occur on properties with inadequate security, machinery or equipment harming visitors, or swimming pool accidents. While not all hazards can be eliminated, property owners can sometimes be found liable for damages and injuries resulting from accidents that occur on their property.
The duty of care that a property owner has towards visitors on their property can differ depending on the relationship between the landowner or landlord and the injured party. In many jurisdictions, there are three main types of relationship: invitee, licensee, and trespasser. Since the different types of relationship result in different duties of care, a situation that might allow one injured party to recover for an injury on someone else’s property may not allow for a different visitor to seek reimbursement for harms sustained. Some states have moved away from these three categories of relationships and, instead, require landowners to warn all visitors about potential dangers, and failure to do so could result in negligence actions. Despite the different approach taken by some jurisdictions, the three categories of relationship mentioned above serve as an explanation of the basic parameters of premises liability.
Invitees are persons that visit a property for a purpose that benefits both the visitor and the property owner. For example, customers who visit retail stores like shopping malls are invitees because they benefit from obtaining goods from the stores at the mall, and the mall and its shop benefit from selling goods to the customers. Similarly, those invited to perform services like repairs on a property are also invitees. Usually, this relationship includes some transfer of funds or benefits between the parties, but that isn’t always necessary. Property owners must take steps to protect invitees from any hazards that the owner is or should reasonably be aware of. Landowners should inspect their property, fix dangerous conditions if they can, and warn about conditions they can’t mitigate or eliminate through signage and other methods.
Licensees are another type of invited visitor permitted by the landowner or landlord to be on the property, but neither party trades economic or other benefits. A common type of licensee is a houseguest. Landowners may owe a different level of duty to licensees than to invitees, and may not need to inspect the premises or fix dangerous conditions when they are found. They do still, however, need to protect their licensees from known dangers by warning them.
Lastly, trespassers are visitors who enter a property without the permission of the property owner. Since they are not consensual visitors, and the landowner may be unaware of their presence on the land, the duty of care of the landowner is at its lowest. The landowner cannot create hazards or make them worse in order to deter or catch trespassers, but they don’t have to necessarily warn of or fix pre-existing dangerous conditions. Sometimes trespassers may enter a property due to the existence of an attractive nuisance, a feature of the property that may draw visitors, like children, onto the property. Common instances of attractive nuisances include swimming pool accidents, where children trespass in order to swim, and suffer injury or death. Children are often unable to appreciate the danger posed by an object or condition, and are more susceptible to harm. Property owners and landlords should be aware of all three categories of relationships with visitors to their property and take the appropriate steps to fulfill their duty of care for all potential visitors.
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