In short, premises liability refers to a set of laws that may hold property owners responsible for accidents and injuries that happen on their property. Premises liability also extends to any accidents and injuries that occur inside the home or at a place of business. Premises liability law requires that property owners ensure the safety of any person who enters their property, and take all reasonable measures to accomplish this. It is important to note that in most cases premises liability does not extend to trespassers.

As a legal concept, premises liability generally occurs hand in hand with personal injury cases in which an individual’s injury was caused by an unsafe or defective condition on another individual’s property.

Premises liability claims are commonly based on the legal concept of negligence, as are most personal injury claims. The legal term negligence refers to a person failing in their duty to exercise reasonable care, with that failure resulting in damage or injury to another person. Thus, negligence focuses on an individual’s failure to take certain precautions or actions, as opposed to an individual’s direct actions.

In order to succeed in a lawsuit based on premises liability, the plaintiff (i.e. the injured party) generally must prove the following legal elements:

  1. That the owner owed them a duty of care;
  2. That there was a dangerous, unsafe, or defective condition on the property owner’s premises;
  3. That the owner knew of the dangerous, unsafe, or dangerous condition but failed to remedy the situation; and
  4. That the injury occurred due to the property owner’s failure to exercise their duty of care to prevent accidents to others resulting in the plaintiff’s injuries and damages.

As can be seen, not all property owners will be responsible for others being injured on their property. A duty of care is typically only owed to invitees or licensees. Further, a breach of this duty only occurs when a property owner does not act as reasonably or prudent as another person would under the same or similar circumstances.

For example, a property owner would not typically be liable for a child that randomly climbed and fell out of a tree on their property. However, if there are facts that demonstrate that the property owner was aware that every child in the neighborhood climbed their tree, and actively encouraged them to do so, then the injured party may be able to prove negligence on behalf of the property owner.

In short, it must be proven that the property owner’s negligence was the “actual and proximate” cause of the plaintiff’s injuries being claimed. This is also known as the legal requirement for the plaintiff to prove causation. Finally, if all of the negligence elements have been proven by the plaintiff, they must still prove that there was some quantifiable loss or damage as a result of the property owner’s negligence.

Who Can Be Held Legally Liable?

Once again property owner liability is dependent upon the tort liability status of the victim and the circumstances in which they were injured. “Tort” is a legal term that describes a violation in which one individual causes damage, harm, or injury to another. In some cases a victim may be liable if they contributed to their own injury apart from the actions of the property owner’s negligence.

Statuses of individuals under premises liability include invitees, licensees, and trespassers. Generally speaking, a property owner owes this highest duty of care to invitees. Next, property owners owe a lesser duty of care to licensees. Finally, as mentioned above, property owners owe little to no duty of care to trespassers.

The liability for homeowners can be broken down further as follows:

  • Invitees: These are individuals who have been invited onto the property by the owner themself. As such, the property owner has a duty to warn them of risks that the property owner is aware of, and if the risk of harm is unreasonable. The property owner also has a duty to make sure their premises is safe from dangerous conditions;
  • Licensees: Licensees are commonly social guests that have entered or remained on a property for a purpose other than business. Licensees have special permission to do something on, or with, the property owner’s property. As far as liability, homeowners are responsible for warning licensees of any dangerous conditions that they are aware of; and
  • Trespassers: In sharp contrast to invitees, trespassers are people who have entered or remained on a homeowner’s property without the permission of the homeowner. Although state laws regarding trespassing vary, generally a property owner does not have a duty to warn trespassers of dangerous conditions. This is even more true if the property owner is unaware of the trespasser’s presence.
    • Going back to the children climbing the tree example, property owners do have a duty to warn known or tolerated trespassers of any dangerous conditions. For instance, if the property owner knew the tree branches were withering and old, and still did nothing to prevent children from climbing it, the homeowner may be held liable for breaching their duty of care.

If a homeowner is found to be negligent or found to have breached their duty of care to prevent an accident or injury from occurring on their property, the injured party may be awarded damages. Additionally, the homeowner may also be ordered to repair or fix the dangerous condition that led to the injury. Examples of common personal injury damages include:

  • Pain and suffering;
  • Current and future medical bills;
  • Lost income or loss of the injured party’s earning capacity; and/or
  • Punitive damages. Punitive damages are damages meant to punish the party that injured the plaintiff to prevent future incidents from occurring.

Do Homeowners Owe a Duty of Care to Employees or Contractors?

Once again, the duty that a homeowner owes to another individual will typically depend on the status of that individual on their property. Importantly, both employees and independent contractors are most likely going to be considered invitees, as they are both parties that have been likely invited onto the property for business purposes. For example, a homeowner may hire an independent contractor to paint the outside of their house, or replace their roof.

However, homeowners in some cases may unwittingly become an employer, with corresponding liability, if they are not careful. When a court is determining whether or not a property owner is liable for injuries to a worker on their property, the court will typically look at the control that the worker had over the work itself. Thus, the main factor to be considered when determining whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor is that employers have a certain level of direction and control over the work, whereas contractors have total control over the methods and means by which the work will be completed.

For instance, if a homeowner hires an individual to replace their roof, and pays them based on the hours worked, that may be evidence that the worker has become in essence an employee of the homeowner. Contractors will typically ask for a fixed fee for the job, regardless of the time it takes to actually complete the job. Further, a homeowner will not be able to dictate the methods by which the contractor uses to achieve the job. This is not to say that a homeowner cannot have any interactions with an independent contractor.

In fact, independent contractors will often meet and consult with the homeowner in order to review the scope of the job and the overall guidelines in which they will complete the job. For instance, if a homeowner hires an independent contractor to paint their house, they could meet to decide that the house should be painted black, the project should take no longer than a week, etc.

Other ways that a homeowner may be found to be a pseudo employer include:

  • If the homeowner assists with the job. A homeowner that assists with the job may be considered to be providing direction to the worker;
  • Providing the tools and other equipment needed to perform the job to the workers. If a worker is injured by a tool provided by a homeowner, they may be able to claim that the tool was defective, as well as that the homeowner exercised control over the project; and/or
  • The homeowner otherwise controls aspects of the project. For instance, the homeowner becomes involved with the day to day work of the project and directs the workers.

Once again, although a homeowner may still be held liable under the legal theory of premises liability for workers classified as either employees or contractors, a homeowner will open themselves up to more liability if the homeowner becomes classified as an employer. Therefore, it is important for a homeowner to exercise caution with invitee workers that enter their property for business purposes.

Do I Need an Attorney for Help With Homeowner Liability?

As can be seen, homeowners may owe a duty of care to many different parties. Therefore, if an individual has been injured on your property, you should immediately consult with an experienced contract attorney.

An experienced personal injury attorney will be able to help you determine whether or not you are liable for that individual’s injuries, as well as assert any applicable legal defenses that are available to your specific case. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed. Alternatively, if you were injured on another individual’s property, a personal injury attorney can file a suit against the homeowner on your behalf.