Premises Liability Law
What is Premises Liability Law?
Premises liability law refers to the legal principles that hold landowners and tenants responsible when someone enters onto their property and gets hurt due to a dangerous condition. With few exceptions, premises liability claims are based on negligence, although the doctrine may be applied differently than it is in other personal injury situations. The primary source of premises liability law is state case precedents (known as “common law”). State statutes, municipal ordinances, and local building codes may also be relevant.
Slip and falls are the most common type of accident resulting in premises liability. Causes include wet floors, snow and ice, unmarked obstacles, faulty stairs, and other such dangers. Lawsuits can also result from injuries caused by vicious animals, open swimming pools, broken elevators, or violent customers or guests. To obtain compensation, plaintiffs may be able to file suit against owners, landlords, business owners, easement holders, residential tenants, maintenance companies, and other entities that control or possess the property where the accident happened.
Traditional Approach Based on Entrant Status
A number of courts decide questions of premises liability by characterizing the injured plaintiff in one of three ways, based on the reason he or she entered onto the land. Plaintiffs who entered without permission are given the status of “trespassers.” Social guests and others who entered onto the land for their own purposes are labeled as “licensees,” and those who entered to further the purposes of the landowner, such as business customers, are considered “invitees.” Each group is afforded a different level of protection from harm.
Under this traditional approach, landowners usually have no legal responsibility to keep trespassers safe. An exception is made, however, if the owner knew that trespassers were present, and failed to warn them about hidden and dangerous conditions. With respect to licensees (guests), landowners have a similar duty. That is, they must warn about dangers that people coming onto the land are unlikely to discover on their own. Invitees (customers) are provided the most protection. Landowners must inspect the premises and make sure it is safe for these individuals.
States that follow this approach to premises liability do so as a way of giving landowners and other potential defendants an established set of rules they can use to anticipate their legal obligations. Owners can figure out ahead of time the safety measures they must take to avoid liability for an accident. Despite the predictability it offers, the traditional approach is becoming obsolete in the United States, as a growing number of states have abandoned it in favor of an approach that judges the merits of each case individually.
Modern Trend Reflects a More Flexible Standard
Central to the doctrine of negligence is the idea that everyone in society has a legal obligation to act as a reasonable, prudent person under the circumstances. Regardless of whether the injury resulted from a car accident or a surgical procedure, the defendant is judged by the same standard. The jury will consider all of the facts surrounding the accident, and then decide if a reasonable person in the defendant’s shoes would have acted the same way, or have done something different to avoid the accident.
This concept of a single negligence standard applicable to any factual scenario is quickly replacing the trespasser/licensee/invitee approach. To see the benefit of the modern trend, consider the example of a parking lot owner sued by a customer who was attacked by a stranger late at night. The traditional approach would classify the customer as an invitee and apply a predetermined set of rules. By contrast, the modern trend would consider many factors, such as the local crime rate, the owner’s knowledge of previous attacks, the feasibility of providing brighter lights, security guards, fences, and so forth.
Special Rules and Legal Doctrines
In jurisdictions that still apply the categorical approach to premises liability, a principle known as the “attractive nuisance” doctrine may be available to help child accident victims prove fault. The attractive nuisance doctrine requires landowners to fix dangerous conditions in areas known to be frequented by children, if the children, because of their youth, will fail to recognize the danger. In jurisdictions following the modern trend, this principle is subsumed into the “reasonable under the circumstances” standard.
Litigants should also be aware of the rules of contributory negligence and comparative fault. These doctrines bar or reduce compensation in premises liability cases based on the plaintiff’s own conduct. In other words, an injured plaintiff stands to recover less if the defendant can show the plaintiff could have avoided the accident by exercising more caution. In most states, the jury will be instructed to assign a percentage of the total fault for the accident to the plaintiff’s carelessness, and reduce the damage award accordingly.
Hiring a Lawyer to Pursue or Defend a Claim
Because premises liability law differs from state to state, victims should seek advice from a local attorney. If you have been injured on someone else’s property, you may be entitled to compensation, but you must act quickly to meet the time deadlines for filing a claim. Schedule a consultation with an injury lawyer today.
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Articles About Premises Liability
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Premises Liability Law - US
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Premises Liability Law - Europe
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- European Group on Tort Law - Principles of European Tort Law
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- Occupiers Liability Act 1984 - England
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