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When you are invited on the property of another, the landowner generally owes you a duty to keep the premises free from perils and provide advance warning of any hidden dangers. The landowner is not a guarantor of the visitor’s safety but there is a duty which is based on the facts of each event which must be met. The level of care which the landowner owes to a visitor depends on the visitor’s legal status on the property.
The law of premises liability varies from state to state and is generally found in the common law. This means that it is not statutory but found in the law relating to negligence. Generally the landowner’s duty depends on the character of the visitor.
The three main classes of visitors include: social invitees, commercial invitees and trespassers. Social and commercial invitees are owed a duty by the landowner to keep the property free from perils and to provide warning of any known or reasonably known dangers. When the landowner breaches the duty, the victim has a claim for damages.
A landowner can be responsible for many perils. A very typical situation is a tenant moves into an apartment complex. The tenant has no way of knowing if any of the neighbors are dangerous or violent or if the complex has a significant history of violent activity.
If it turns out that a tenant is dangerous and an assault occurs, the injured tenant may claim that the landowner knew of this danger and failed to warn the tenant. A jury could find that the landlord knew or should have known of this dangerous tenant and failed to fulfill its duty to warn the new tenant. Because of this breach of duty, the landlord may be liable for damages to the victim for the injuries.
The landlord’s liability can be for an injury from violent crime when the landowner knew that the complex was in a dangerous, high-crime area and failed to hire a security guard or failed to warn tenants of the high crime rate. In some instances, there is insufficient security.
These types of cases have a similar theme; that the landlord was in a superior position to take reasonable steps to make the property safer or was in possession of information which would have caused a reasonable landowner to take some protective measures for the safety of the tenants. These measures might be as simple as posting additional security, posting a sign, adding additional exterior lighting or otherwise removing the danger.
Can a landlord be responsible for a slip and fall injury?
A visitor in a retail establishment is considered a commercial invitee. In some cases, the invitee can trip and fall or slip and fall on something on the floor of a store. The cases generally rely on the fact that the landowner should have seen the item and corrected it or warned the customers of the spill or the item on the floor. The landlord may raise the issue of comparative negligence as a defense; that the danger was open and obvious and the invitee should have, in the exercise of due care, seen it and avoided it.
Those are questions for a jury to decide. The injured victim would have recourse against the property owner if they can prove the landowner should have seen the item on the floor and timely warned the customer and promptly corrected the danger.
A landowner owes a very minimal duty to a trespasser. The laws vary from state to state but generally a landowner has no legal duty to a trespasser. It can be said that the minimal duty which exists is to avoid intentionally inflicting harm on a trespasser.
An example of a violation of this duty could be the landowner, usually due to repeated thefts, setting a trap, an explosive device or a weapon which would go off when a sensor is tripped by a trespasser. These traps can be fatal. Generally a landowner is only allowed to use such serious or deadly force when confronted with deadly force. A landowner is not permitted to use deadly force to protect personal property rights.
The law of premises liability is the law of negligence. Landowners have a certain duty. The breach or failure of that duty gives rise to an injury and damages. The factual scenarios vary widely but a landowner can be responsible in damages even if the harm comes from a third party stranger, even if the third party commits a criminal act.
The landowner can be found responsible from all harm which could be said by a reasonable person to have been foreseeable. A landowner has a duty to protect invitees from all foreseeable perils on the landowner’s property.
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This article was last updated on Wednesday, June 10, 2015.