Premises liability is a broad, catch-all term. It describes a variety of legal claims that can result from a dangerous condition on another person's property. The classic example is a store owner who fails to clean a slippery substance from the floor, causing a customer to slip and fall. Falls are by far the most common of all premises liability claims, but as we'll see, there are many others.
This article will help you to understand premises liability claims, how to prove them, and some of the challenges you might encounter when bringing a premises liability claim.
The elements of a premises liability claim are controlled by state law. Before you bring a claim, make sure you understand what the law in your state requires. Better yet, get help from an experienced premises liability lawyer who can guide you through the claim process.
To win a premises liability case, typically you'll have to prove these three elements:
The first and second elements normally are the most difficult, so let's have a closer look at them.
A premises liability case begins with a dangerous condition on someone else's property. Dangerous conditions come in many forms. Here are a few examples:
The fact that a dangerous condition exists doesn't mean there's a premises liability claim. The dangerous condition must exist because the property owner (or another person who controls the property, like a tenant) negligently:
Negligence is simply the failure to act as a reasonably careful person would act in similar circumstances. In a premises liability case, we start the negligence inquiry by asking if the property owner had a legal duty to make their property safe. If there was a duty, and if the property owner failed to act as a reasonably careful person would (in legal terms, the property owner "breached" the duty of care), then the property owner was negligent.
When does a property owner have a duty to make their property safe? The answer depends, in part, on the law of the state where the property is located. In general, states follow one of two approaches:
Some states follow an older, status-based approach to property owner duty. Whether a property owner owes a duty depends, in part, on the status of the person who was injured:
As a general rule, a landowner has no duty to make their property safe for most trespassers. Special protections might be required for trespassing children, and property owners can't create abnormally dangerous conditions on their land that might lead to a trespasser being harmed.
A licensee is someone who has the property owner's permission to be on the property, like a social guest. As a general rule, a landowner must warn licensees of a dangerous condition on the property if the owner knows of the condition and the licensee isn't likely to discover it.
An invitee—sometimes known as a business invitee—is a person who the property owner invites to enter a property, usually for a business purpose. Examples include store customers or visitors to a professional office building. A landowner must warn invitees of a dangerous condition that the owner knows or should know about, if an invitee isn't likely to discover it.
Under the reasonable care approach, which is the law in most states, a property owner generally owes a duty of reasonable care toward (almost) all those who enter their property. This duty typically requires a landowner to warn of dangerous conditions on the property which are:
Note that there's usually an exception to this duty of care for trespassers. In most reasonable care states, a landowner has no duty to protect trespassers from harm unless trespassing is common or the trespassers are children. As in status-based states, a landowner can't create abnormally dangerous conditions on the property that might harm trespassers.
(Learn about special rules that apply to a premises liability claim against the government.)
Here are some common types of premises liability cases.
Falls are, by far, the most common of all premises liability cases. Dangerous conditions that often lead to a slip or trip and fall include:
(Find out about a landlord's liability for tenant slip and fall accidents.)
Property owners might have a duty to provide security, particularly in places where tenants, customers, or other visitors have been injured by criminal or other violent activity. For example, many apartment buildings are secured with locked entrances. Shopping malls and nightclubs may hire security guards or off-duty police officers to secure indoor and outdoor areas and parking lots.
An animal can be a dangerous condition. Even if the animal is a pet that's normally friendly, it might still behave unpredictably at times. Liability for animal attacks varies by state, but pet owners often have a duty to restrain animals or to warn visitors that the pet might attack or act aggressively, particularly if it's happened before.
Premises liability claims can have some difficulties you'll want to watch out for. Here are a couple:
Keep in mind that a dangerous condition minus property owner negligence probably equals no premises liability claim. You must show that the landowner breached (that is, failed to meet) a duty to keep the property safe.
In both reasonable care states and status-based states, property owners might have a duty to warn of dangerous conditions that visitors aren't likely to discover. Expect a property owner to argue that as a visitor, you should have discovered the dangerous condition and taken steps to avoid it.
Before a property owner can be found negligent because of a dangerous condition, in most states a couple of things must be true:
In many premises liability cases, proving that the property owner was negligent is only half the battle. You also must prove that you weren't negligent. Depending on the state where you live, this is either called comparative negligence or contributory negligence, and it can be a claim killer.
Let's see how it works in a slip-and-fall case. You claim there was a dangerous condition, like a puddle of liquid in a store aisle, that caused you to fall. Among other defenses, the store owner will claim you were also negligent. Here's why this defense can be quite successful.
If you slipped and fell on a puddle of liquid, there are two possibilities:
In either case, you might be found partially to blame for your fall.
If you think you've got a premises liability claim, be prepared. Contrary to some beliefs, a slip-and-fall case is no guarantee of success. You need to have experienced counsel on your side, someone who can anticipate and head off problems before they destroy your premises liability claim.
Here's how to find a premises liability lawyer who's right for you and your case.