Premises Liability: Who Is Responsible?

When someone enters your property, they have a reasonable expectation of not getting injured. This means that you, as a property owner (or non-owner resident), are responsible for maintaining a relatively safe environment. This is known as “premises liability.” For example, a courier delivering a package may sue you for injuries if he slips and falls on an oil slick in the driveway. But if that same courier happened to be intoxicated or otherwise acted in an unsafe way, then he may not have a valid claim.
The legal theory of premises liability holds property owners and residents liable for accidents and injuries that occur on that property. The kinds of incidents that may result in premises liability claims can range from a slip and fall on a public sidewalk to an injury suffered on an amusement park ride.
Liability is determined by the laws and procedures of the state in which the injury occurred. In some states, the court will focus on the status of the injured visitor in determining liability. In other states, the focus will be on the condition of the property and the activities of both the owner and visitor. It is important to remember that an occupier of land, such as an apartment tenant, is treated in the same manner as a landowner in many situations.
Legal Status of Visitor: Invitee, Licensee, or Trespasser?
In states that focus only on the status of the visitor to the property, there are generally four different labels that may apply: invitee, social guest, licensee, or trespasser. An invitee is someone who is invited onto the property of another, such as a customer in a store. This invitation usually implies that the property owner/possessor has taken reasonable steps to assure the safety of the premises. A licensee enters property for his own purpose, or as a social guest, and is present at the consent of the owner. Finally, a trespasser enters without any right whatsoever to do so. In the case of licensees and trespassers, there is no implied promise that reasonable care has been made to assure the safety of the property.
In many states that look to the legal status of the injured person, the trend is toward distinguishing only between those lawfully on the property (invitees, social guests, licensees) and those on the property illegally (trespassers).
Condition of the Property and Actions of the Visitor
In states where consideration is given to the condition of the property and the activities of the owner and visitor, a uniform standard of care is applied to both invitees and licensees. This uniform standard requires the exercise of reasonable care for the safety of the visitor, other than a trespasser. In order to satisfy the reasonableness standard owed to invitees and/or licensees, an owner has a continuing duty to inspect the property in order to identify dangerous conditions and either repair them or post warnings as appropriate. An owner can be found liable if he or she has knowledge of a dangerous condition, fails to take reasonable steps to fix that condition (or warn visitors), and a visitor suffers an injury as a result.
Determining whether the standard of reasonableness required by an owner toward licensees (and in some states, both licensees and invitees) has been met requires an examination of numerous factors including:

  • Circumstances under which the visitor entered the property;
  • Use to which the property is put;
  • Foreseeability of the accident or injury that occurred;
  • Reasonableness of the owner/possessor’s effort to repair a dangerous condition or warn visitors.