Every owner of residential property has an obligation to ensure that their land and home are reasonably safe for anyone who is invited to or visits the premises. Residential property refers to all sorts of real estate, including homes, townhouses, and condominiums.

Thus, if you are the owner of residential property and a person gets injured either in your home or on your land, then you may be held liable for the harm or losses suffered by the victim. This type of responsibility is known as “premises liability.”

Premises liability laws refer to the rules which govern residential homeowners’ liability for personal injury. These types of claims are usually based on a tort law theory of negligence and may vary depending on the jurisdiction and facts surrounding an individual case.

What are the Laws Regarding Premises Liability?

Specifically, the concept of premises liability is governed by the laws and procedures of the state where the injury occurred. In some states, the court may focus on the legal status of the individual. In other states, the court might focus on the condition of the property, as well as the activities of both the owner and the visitor.

In general, a court will consider numerous factors when determining whether or not to hold an owner liable for an injury, such as:

  • The condition of the property (e.g., was it properly maintained, or did it need a lot of repairs?);
  • The legal status of the individual visiting the property (i.e., was the person an invitee, licensee, or trespasser?);
  • Whether both the owner and the visitor are at fault for the injury;
  • The circumstances under which the visitor entered the property (for example, was the person a social guest, or were they attempting a rescue like a firefighter or police officer?); 
  • How the property is being used;
  • Whether the accident or injury that occurred was foreseeable or not?
  • Whether the visitor to the property was an adult or a child;
  • Whether the owner’s efforts to fix a dangerous condition or to warn visitors of a dangerous condition was reasonable;
  • Whether the owner knew or should have known about a particular condition on the premises (e.g., was it hidden or obvious?).

What are the Different Kinds of Duties for Property Owners?

Owners of either type of property (e.g., residential or commercial), have certain duties towards other individuals who are on that property for a particular reason. In some states, the type of duty that an owner has to others may depend on who the person is on their property.

In general, there are three major categories of people covered by the rules found under premises liability laws. This includes the following categories:

  • Invitees: Invitees are people who visit an owner’s premises for the purposes of conducting business (e.g., a customer in a store), and they are owed the highest duty of care under premises liability laws. 
    • Although invitees are most frequently found in commercial buildings (as opposed to residential), there is always the possibility that a person might engage in a business activity from their home and as such, will invite other individuals to their home for business related reasons. 
      • Therefore, even those who visit a residential property for business purposes can be classified as invitees. If invitees are invited to an owner’s premises, then the owner is required to inspect their premises regularly for any potential dangers. They also must either make their premises as safe as possible, or warn any invitees about any potential dangerous conditions.
  • Licensees: People who come to a person’s residence for non-business related reasons are known as licensees. They are usually there with the owner’s permission and for the mutual benefit of both the guest and the property owner.
    • An example of a licensee would be a neighbor that you invite over for a cup of coffee. Owners owe persons who are classified as licensees an intermediate level of duty. An owner either must make their residence as safe as possible, or warn licensees of any potential dangers on the premises that they know or should reasonably know about.
      • Note, the duty to warn licensees does not extend to obvious defective conditions, such as a large hole in the steps leading to an owner’s front door.
  • Trespassers: These are individuals who enter onto an owner’s property without their permission (and usually without an owner’s knowledge). Although it will depend on the laws of the state and the type of trespasser they are classified as (i.e., unknown trespasser versus anticipated trespasser), owners owe only a very minimal duty to them.

What are Some Defenses to Claims for Premises Liability?

There are also three major categories of defenses that are frequently used against claims for a premises liability lawsuit. These defenses include:

  • Comparative Negligence: Most states offer some form of comparative negligence as a defense. In these states, if a plaintiff was partially responsible for their accident, then their damages will be reduced according to the extent that they were at fault.
    • For example, if a plaintiff was 40% responsible for their injuries, then their damages will be reduced by 40%.
  • Contributory Negligence: Only a handful of jurisdictions allow a defendant to claim contributory negligence as a defense. In a state that recognizes a defense for contributory negligence, if the plaintiff was partially responsible for their injuries, then they will not be able to recover any damages from the defendant.
  • Assumption of Risk: An assumption of risk defense permits a defendant to argue that the plaintiff was aware of a potential danger on the property and assumed the risk of entering the property despite the danger.

Should I Contact a Lawyer for Help with Premises Liability Laws?

If a person was injured at your home and you are being held liable for the incident, the laws on premises liability will determine whether or not you were negligent and breached your duty to exercise reasonable care towards that person.

Fortunately, in most cases, if you are the owner, then your homeowners insurance policy will likely cover you for any liability. Additionally, your homeowners insurance company may also cover the costs of legal fees to handle any claims. This means that if you are the homeowner in the case, then you may not have to do much other than to notify your insurer of the accident and allow them to handle everything.

On the other hand, if you are the injured party to the matter and you suffered any type of significant injury on an owner’s premises, then it may be in your best interest to contact a local personal injury lawyer before proceeding.

Most lawyers will take your case on a contingency fee basis, which means that you will not need to front the costs of an attorney. Instead, your attorney will be paid out by using a portion of the money that they recover from your claim.