Premises Liability and Injury Laws for Homeowners

An overview of the basic liability principles governing injury claims arising out of accidents in the home.

Homeowners should have a basic understanding of premises liability laws to ensure that they are protected in the case of an accident on their property. If you are a homeowner, knowledge of premises liability laws could mean the difference between being financially liable for an injury sustained on your property or avoiding liability altogether.

Premises liability laws hinge upon the nature of the injured party. There are three categories of visitor under premises liability law -- licensee, business invitee and trespasser. Your duties and potential liability as a homeowner in a premises liability case change depending on the classification of the injured party. Homeowners also differ from possessors of property, and that distinction could also affect liability.

Licensee

A licensee is a person who is on your property because you have expressly or implicitly allowed them to enter, despite the fact that your property is not open to the general public. A social guest is a licensee, as is a visiting family member or a solicitor. Essentially, a licensee is someone that enters your property with permission.

As a homeowner, you owe a licensee a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent injuries from a condition on the land that you knew -- or should have known -- of at the time of the entry. This includes a duty to warn a licensee of the condition and risk involved in entering the property.

An example of a homeowner’s duty to a licensee would be warning the licensee of a loose step, or repairing the loose step if you knew it could potentially cause injury.

Business Invitee

A business invitee enters your property under your own inducement, usually for a commercial or business purpose. Contractors working on your house, the cable guy, and customers at an estate or garage sale are common types of business invitees.

The duty owed to a business invitee is more stringent than that owed to a licensee -- in fact, as a homeowner you owe business invitees the highest duty of any category of visitor. As a homeowner, you have a duty to actively inspect for potential hazards on your property, and to make reasonable repairs to protect invitees from hazards of which you are (or should be) aware if it is reasonable to expect that the invitee will not either discover the hazard himself or protect himself from the hazard.

In plain English, it is your job as a homeowner to make your property safe for a business invitee -- and not your version of safe, but what a reasonable person would consider safe.

Using the loose step example from the prior paragraph, you, as a homeowner, would have a duty to repair the step if you were hosting a business invitee. Simply warning the invitee of the potential danger is not enough. You knew the step was loose, that it was potentially hazardous, and could cause injury. As such, it is your duty to repair it to prevent any injuries.

Trespasser

A trespasser is a person that enters your property without your permission (either express or implied) for his own reasons -- and not for your benefit. Despite a general belief to the contrary, a trespasser does not have to be on your property for an illegal purpose. As a homeowner, you owe a trespasser no legal obligation regarding the condition of your property, and it is very difficult for a trespasser to maintain a premises liability case for any injuries sustained while trespassing. One caveat -- if you know that a trespasser is on your property, you may have a duty to exercise ordinary care regarding the trespasser’s safety. Local law varies.

A trespasser in your house literally has no business being in your house. So again using the loose step example, you as the homeowner owe the trespasser neither a duty to warn of the loose step nor a duty to repair the condition.

Homeowners v. Possessors

Knowing your own status as a property owner could be important as well, if you ever find yourself a defendant in a premises liability claim.

Depending upon the laws in your jurisdiction, there could be a legal distinction between a homeowner and a possessor of land. For example, you may be able to avoid liability in a premises liability suit if you are sued as a homeowner, but do not actually have possession and control over the land. An example of this type of situation is when you rent out property that you own. Conversely, if you are a tenant but do not actually own the home in which you live, you could be liable for injuries occurring in your rental unit.

Homeowners who are aware of the basics of premises liability law are well positioned to both prevent injury and limit liability under the law. Knowledge, coupled with appropriate homeowners insurance coverage and the assistance of good legal counsel can go a long way toward reducing exposure to potentially damaging premises liability suits.

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