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Premises Liability




Keeping the Premises Safe

A property owner or a person in possession of property has a legal responsibility for the safety of the premises. These responsibilities vary from state to state, and they vary based on how the entrant to the property is classified. An attorney who is knowledgeable about the law of premises liability can advise you regarding the applicable duties of the property owner.

Duty to Keep Premises Safe Based on Class of Entrant

Under traditional common law theories, the duty of an owner, occupier or possessor of land to a person who enters the premises and is injured because of the condition of the premises depends on the status of the entrant. Entrants are typically classified as invitees, licensees or trespassers, and the duty that the landowner or occupier owes to each class of entrant is different. An invitee is someone who enters the land in response to an express or implied invitation from the landowner. A licensee is a person who enters the premises with the landowner's express or implied permission for his or her own purposes rather than the landowner's benefit, such as a social guest. A trespasser is someone who enters the land without the owner's permission.

Invitees - The landowner must use reasonable and ordinary care to keep the property reasonably safe for the invitee. This includes the duty to warn the invitee of non-obvious, dangerous conditions known to the landowner; to use ordinary care in active operations on the land; and to make reasonable inspections to discover dangerous conditions and make them safe. There is generally no duty to warn if the dangerous condition is so obvious that the invitee should have reasonably seen it.

Owners of commercial businesses, such as stores, offices and restaurants have a duty to make reasonable inspections to discover dangerous conditions and make them safe. What is reasonable is a factual issue based on the surrounding circumstances. However, it would probably be considered reasonable for a business owner to do regular, periodic inspections of areas where customers ordinarily walk to check for spills and other potential hazards. If there are specific, dangerous conditions that the landowner knows about, but would not be obvious to an invitee, such as a loose floorboard, the landowner must warn the invitee.

Licensees - An owner or occupier of land has a duty to warn a licensee of a dangerous condition that creates an unreasonable risk of harm if it is known to the owner or occupier and not likely to be discovered by the licensee. Thus, a homeowner would need to warn a social guest about non-obvious, hazardous conditions such as loose steps or a broken handrail that appear to be fine. Property owners have no duty to licensees to inspect for defects or to fix known defects. As such, it is not necessary for a homeowner to check for potential hazards and fix them before having a party. The owner or occupier does have a duty to exercise reasonable care in the conduct of active operations to protect a licensee he or she knows is on the property.

Trespassers - Landowners and occupiers have no duty to undiscovered trespassers. If a property owner discovers a trespasser on the property, he or she has a duty to use ordinary care to warn the trespasser or, to make safe, artificial conditions that the property owner knows involve a risk of death or serious bodily injury that the trespasser is not likely to discover. Thus, if a landowner discovers a trespasser on his or her property, he or she must warn the trespasser about dangerous conditions that the trespasser is not likely to discover, such as a hole in the ground that is not clearly visible.

Many jurisdictions still adhere to the common law status classifications today. However, some jurisdictions in the United States have rejected the common law classes of entrants as determinative of liability. Some of these states have adopted a rule that provides that an owner or occupier of land has a duty of reasonable care under all circumstances.

Condition of the Property

In many states, the property owner or other person in possession of the property, such as a tenant, must exercise reasonable care to make the premises safe for anyone on the premises lawfully, including social guests, customers and employees. This usually means that the property owner has the duty to inspect the property periodically, and either to repair dangerous conditions or to issue adequate warnings of the dangerous conditions.

The frequency of the inspections, as well as the decision whether to repair or merely post a warning depends on a number of factors. For example, a property owner probably will be required to make more frequent inspections of a building lobby that has visitors entering and leaving fairly constantly than of an interior room with restricted admission and little use. Similarly, it is likely that the exercise of reasonable care would require a property owner to replace burned-out light bulbs in a dark stairway, while a sign that draws attention to a slight incline may be sufficient for a well-lit hallway. The determination of whether a property owner's efforts are reasonable will depend upon all of the circumstances surrounding the use and nature of the property.

Conclusion

The duties that a landowner or occupier owe to keep their premises safe for entrants to the premises depend on the categorization of the entrant. An attorney who is experienced in premises liability matters can advise you about property owner duties.

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