The Duties Owed to Social Guests and Workers | How Liability Is Determined
You’ve been invited to a party by a friend or acquaintance and while you’re there, you slip and fall on an icy sidewalk or stairway or trip on torn carpet or broken tile. Can you bring a lawsuit against the person who lives there? If so, how do you establish liability for your injuries?
The Concept of Premises Liability
Though the laws vary, every state has long-standing laws that address potential liability when a person is injured because of a dangerous or hazardous condition on residential property. Known as “premises liability,” the principles that make up this body of law are typically found in the common law, derived from the written opinions of judges, rather than from statutes.
Traditionally, the duties imposed on persons owning or controlling property have varied depending on whether the visitor is considered a “licensee,” an “invitee,” or a “trespasser.” The category of “invitees” generally applies to business situations, e.g., store customers. A trespasser is someone present on property with no right to be there; property owners have no duties to protect trespassers. A licensee is anyone who comes onto private residential property with the permission of the owner or occupier; this category includes social guests.
Duties Owed to Social Guests and Workers in Your Home
Under the traditional approach, an owner or controller of property (such as a tenant renting an apartment) who invites a friend over for a social purpose has a duty to prevent them from being harmed by any hidden hazardous conditions. For example, if the stairs have a loose board that might come off and cause a person to fall, the homeowner must either warn the visitor about the situation so that they can avoid it, or else repair the dangerous condition before the guest arrives. If they don’t, and the loose board causes the guest to fall in a way that causes serious injury, the homeowner may be liable for damages.
The traditional status-based approach applies different rules to situations where a homeowner or tenant invites a visitor to come on the premises to provide business services, such as landscaping or swimming pool maintenance. In those situations, the visiting worker is considered a business invitee, and the owner or tenant owes them a higher duty. With respect to an invitee, an owner has a duty to inspect the premises and fix any unsafe conditions that might cause injury or else prevent access to the condition—simply warning the invitee of the condition is not sufficient to avoid liability.
Over the past few decades, the majority of states (including California, New York, and Illinois) have abandoned the traditional status-based approach and adopted a “reasonable care” approach. This approach focuses on the condition of the property, rather than the owner’s relationship with the injured party. Under this modern standard, owners or persons in control of property must exercise reasonable care in maintaining their property and must warn others (social guests and service workers alike) about any unsafe conditions they can’t be expected to discover on their own. (This duty does not apply to trespassers.) A homeowner (or renter) can even be liable for an unsafe condition they don’t actually know about, as long as the condition is one an owner/occupier should have known about if they were taking reasonable steps to regularly inspect and maintain the property.
An owner or person in control of residential property owes a duty to individuals legally visiting that property to take steps to minimize the risk of injury. The law varies from state to state, with many states still following the common law approach whereby the duties required are based on the status of the injured party as either a social guest (licensee) or business invitee. However, the majority of states have replaced the traditional approach with one that requires homeowners or residents to exercise reasonable care in the maintenance of property and warn visitors of any unsafe conditions that might cause injury.