Proving Fault in Accidents on Dangerous or Defective Property

Who's legally responsible for injuries that happen because a property is in a dangerous condition?

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

Injuries caused by a defective or dangerous property condition, either inside or outside a building, are called "premises liability" accidents. These accidents can happen at commercial buildings (stores or offices), residences (private homes or rentals), or on public property (parks, streets, or public transportation).

Premises can be dangerous for many reasons—faulty design, shoddy construction or building materials, poor maintenance, or hazardous clutter. Dangerous premises might lead to slipping, falling, tripping, or having something hit or fall on you.

If a dangerous property condition causes you to be injured, who—if anyone—is legally responsible? Here are some general guidelines for premises liability claims.

Basic Liability Rules for Premises Accidents

There are two basic rules to determine who's responsible for a premises accident:

  • the property owner or occupier must keep the property safe, and
  • visitors must use the property normally.

Rule One: The Owner or Occupier Must Keep the Property Safe

A property owner or occupier has a legal duty to anyone who enters the property—as a tenant, a shopper, or a personal or business visitor—not to subject that person to an unreasonable risk of injury. The owner or occupier must take reasonable steps to make sure the property is free of risks due to design or construction defects, or because of some other dangerous condition on the property. The owner or occupier also has a duty to warn visitors about dangerous property conditions.

The reason for this rule is simple and makes sense: The owner or occupier controls the property's safety. A visitor doesn't. Suppose, for example, that the owner of an apartment building doesn't fix a long-broken piece of tile in the entrance hall. The owner, not a visitor, is in the best position to know about this dangerous condition and to fix it. If a visitor trips on that tile and is injured, the owner should be liable.

Rule Two: The Visitor Must Use the Property Normally

The second rule of premises liability relates to the injured person's behavior. When someone gets hurt while using a property in an unexpected, unauthorized, or dangerously careless way, the property owner or occupier probably isn't responsible.

Here's an example. A hotel guest decides to try to jump into the pool from a second-floor balcony, misses the pool, and is injured. Chances are the hotel owner isn't legally liable for that sort of dangerous misuse of the property.

What About Injured Employees?

These basic rules apply to employees who are hurt on their employer's property. But an employee who's injured by some dangerous condition on the employer's premises usually must file a worker's compensation claim instead of a personal injury lawsuit. If an employee is hurt by a dangerous condition on someone else's property, the employee can file a personal injury claim or lawsuit against the property owner.

(Learn more about work-related injuries and workers' compensation claims.)

Who's Responsible: The Owner or the Occupier?

Often, the party who owns a property is different from the one who occupies it. For example, Acme Corporation might own a shopping center and lease space to Widgets-R-Us, LLC to run a retail widget business. Jane Doe might own a rental home and rent it to Richard Roe.

When the owner and occupier of a property are different, who's responsible for a premises accident? The rules depend, in part, on the kind of property that's involved. Even then, figuring out who bears responsibility can be tricky.

Before we discuss the general rules, here's the bottom line: Always file a notice of claim against both the owner and the occupier. It's up to their insurance companies to decide who's legally responsible for your injury.

(Find out about special rules that apply to injuries on government-owned or occupied properties.)

Commercial Property

If you're injured at a store, office, or other business, whether the owner or occupier is legally responsible for your accident typically comes down to:

  • where the accident happened—inside a leased space or at a common area like a parking lot, and
  • what the lease says about maintenance obligations and premises liability claims.

The best practice is to notify both the property owner and occupier of your accident and injuries. Their insurance companies will sort out liability. If for some reason they're unable to figure it out, that's not your problem. Both potentially responsible parties are on the hook.

Private Residences

The rules of legal responsibility for accidents at private residences are fairly simple and usually depend on the type of residence that's involved.

Rented Apartment

If you're a tenant or a guest and are hurt in an accident on a rental property, the responsible party is whoever's required to maintain the area or condition that caused your injury. Here's how that responsibility usually gets divided:

  • the landlord is responsible for everything outside the apartment (hallways, stairs, entrances, parking areas) and for the immovable things inside (floors, walls, fixtures, and appliances that came with the apartment), and
  • the tenant is responsible for the movable things inside an apartment.

Here's one important exception (state premises liability law might provide others) to this division of responsibility. A tenant must notify the landlord of dangerous conditions in an apartment when those conditions are the landlord's obligation to maintain. When the tenant knows that something immovable inside the apartment is in a dangerous condition (for example, a broken floorboard that poses a tripping hazard) but does nothing about it, the tenant might end up sharing liability with the landlord for any injuries that condition causes.

Private Home

When you're hurt in an accident caused by a dangerous or defective condition at a private home, the homeowner will be legally responsible. If the entire home is rented out, the tenant might also be to blame.

Accidents on Adjoining Properties

Accidents sometimes happen at the edge of two properties—for example, at a fence on a neighbor's property line, or on a cracked sidewalk adjoining two properties. It might not be immediately clear whose property caused the accident. In these situations, file a claim notice against both property owners. Let them (or more likely, their insurance companies) sort out who's liable for your injury.

Get Help With Your Premises Liability Claim

Describing the general premises liability rules will help to get you pointed in the right direction. But before you can decide whether you have a claim, and if so, against whom, you need to know about your state's premises liability laws. If you think you've got a premises liability claim, your best bet will be to speak to an expert—someone who knows your state law and who understands the many challenges that these claims often bring.

If you're ready to look for help, here's how to find an experienced personal injury lawyer near you.

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