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An Overview of Premises Liability Law for Small Businesses and Homeowners

Premises liability law consists of torts that hold landowners responsible for injuries that are sustained by individuals visiting the landowner’s property. For example, if you invite someone to your home and they are injured by debris falling off of your roof, you might be held accountable for their injuries if the court finds that you were negligent in maintaining a structurally safe house. In some cases, you can even be held accountable for injuries sustained by people who were not invited to your property, even if the individual is a criminal intruder.

Invitees Versus Trespassers

Traditionally, the injured individual had to be formally invited onto the property for premises liability to apply. Landowners weren’t held accountable for the injuries of individuals who were trespassing or otherwise uninvited to the property. However, the 1968 California Supreme Court case Rowland v. Christian reduced the legal distinctions between invitees and trespassers, as well as the distinction between licensees and property owners.

In Rowland v. Christian, the plaintiff was formally invited to the apartment of the defendant. The defendant failed to warn the plaintiff of a broken water faucet handle in the bathroom, and the defendant subsequently injured his hand on the handle. The plaintiff didn’t legally own the property and had even previously filed a complaint with the landlord about the broken faucet handle. Nevertheless, the court ruled that the plaintiff owed a duty of care to the guest. His failure to warn the plaintiff about the broken handle made him liable for the defendant’s injuries.

As a result of the case, many states revised their premises liability laws, abolishing many of the legal distinctions between renters, owners, invitees, and trespassers. Subsequently, landowners can now sometimes be sued for negligence even if the injured person entered the property illegally.

That’s one reason posted warning signs are so pervasive today: for example, “Beware of Dog” and “Caution: Wet Floor” signs are an attempt to absolve the property owner of negligence if an uninvited person gets bitten by a pet dog or slips and falls on a wet surface. However, simply posting warning signs may not be enough to absolve liability if the court rules that the landowner was significantly negligent in avoiding a hazardous situation on their property.

Attractive Nuisance Doctrine and Inadequate Security

The attractive nuisance doctrine is an exception to the way premises liability law distinguishes between invitees and trespassers that long outdates the Rowland v. Christian case. It was originally established to protect children who lacked the intellectual capacity to know the dangers of entering a property uninvited.

For example, if you have a swimming pool, it’s universally suggested that you fence it off to discourage trespassers. The pool is an “attractive nuisance” that is likely to attract children who don’t fully understand the dangers of drowning. If a child gets in the water and drowns, you will likely be held liable for their death even if the child was trespassing, unless of course, you took all reasonable precautions to secure the pool from trespassers.

In other words, you have to prove to the court that your pool was protected by all adequate security measures that could be expected of a responsible landowner. Otherwise, you could be sued for the inadequate security of a hazardous property.

Inadequate security doesn’t just apply to children. There is a multitude of cases involving adult patrons being injured by other patrons of a business, and the injured parties go on to successfully sue the business for negligence. For example, if someone is in a bar and they get attacked by a violent patron, they may be able to sue the bar owners for not providing adequate security guards and for allowing the attacker to get too intoxicated.

The same rules can apply to hazardous areas of a business property, even if the areas are officially off limits to patrons. For example, if someone wanders onto the loading dock of a grocery store and cuts themselves on one of the industrial tools, they may be able to sue the grocery store for not properly securing the area.

What Premises Liability Law Means for You

If you’re a business owner, you should have a reputable legal team that specializes in premises liability law to advise you on ways to protect your business from potential lawsuits. After all, a single liability lawsuit can bankrupt you and put you out of business.

Even if you’re just an average homeowner, you should seek legal counsel to ensure that all elements of your property are properly maintained and secured against potential hazards that could result in a lawsuit. This is especially important if your property has features that could be considered an attractive nuisance to children such as a swimming pull or outdoor play set. The price of legal counsel as a preventative measure is far cheaper than a single lawsuit for negligence.