How Does a Premises Liability Injury Case Work?

A "premises liability" personal injury case aims to hold a property owner or operator responsible for harm caused by dangerous property conditions.

By , Attorney · Pepperdine Caruso School of Law
Updated by Editors of Nolo

When you're injured because of an unsafe condition on someone else's property, one of the legal theories you'll use to pursue an injury claim will likely be "premises liability." Here's what to know at the outset:

  • All kinds of incidents can give rise to a premises liability claim, from a slip and fall on an icy walkway to a tumble down a neighbor's broken staircase.
  • States differ on the details, but most premises liability injury claims come down to proving that the property owner or operator failed to take reasonable steps to fix an unsafe condition or to otherwise prevent an injury on the property.
  • A successful premises liability injury claim can lead to compensation for a wide range of losses, including medical bills, time missed at work, physical and mental "pain and suffering" resulting from the injuries, and more.

What Is Premises Liability?

"Premises liability" refers to potential legal responsibility for injuries caused by unsafe conditions on almost any kind of property (the "premises" in the language of the law). Examples of the kinds of incidents that might lead to a premises liability claim include:

  • A customer slips and falls in the frozen food aisle of a grocery store after a malfunctioning freezer leaks water onto the floor.
  • Debris falls onto the sidewalk from an unsecured construction site, injuring a pedestrian.
  • A neighbor's decaying deck collapses during a barbecue, injuring guests.
  • After a security door goes unrepaired for weeks, a tenant is assaulted in the lobby of an apartment building.

Learn more about the basics of premises liability.

How Do I Prove a Premises Liability Injury?

State laws vary somewhat, so it's important to check the specifics of the law where you live. But if you're hurt on someone else's property, and you're thinking about making a premises liability injury claim, you'll typically need to prove:

  • the person who caused the injury (the "defendant" if your case goes to court) owned, occupied, leased, or otherwise controlled the property where the injury occurred
  • the defendant was negligent in the use, maintenance, or securing of the property
  • you (the "plaintiff" if you're in court) were harmed, and
  • the defendant's negligence was a "substantial factor" in causing the harm.

Let's look closer at some of these elements.

Did the Defendant Have Control Over the Property?

To win a premises liability case, you must first prove that the defendant owned and/or controlled the property where you were injured. In most premises liability cases, this element probably won't be in dispute. It'll usually be pretty clear that the owner, occupier, lessee, or manager of the property had a legal duty to inspect the property, make sure it was in reasonably safe condition, and take appropriate steps to fix or minimize known (or reasonably knowable) dangers.

For instance, let's say you're shopping in a grocery store when an item falls from a high shelf and hits you on the head. The store owners would be responsible for making sure the store is safe for customers, regardless of whether the grocer owned or leased the premises.

Learn how to figure out who's responsible for a premises liability injury.

Was the Defendant Negligent In Using or Maintaining the Property?

The next thing you must prove is that the defendant was negligent in their use, control, or maintenance of the property where your injury occurred. "Negligence" is a legal concept that holds people accountable for the unintentional harm they cause to others. Put simply, you must show that the defendant failed to meet their legal duty to act with reasonable care in the circumstances that led to your injury.

Historically, property-related injury liability was dependent on whether the injured person had permission to be on the property and why they were there. More recently, however, states have rejected this approach and use "principles of ordinary negligence" instead when it comes to proving fault for an injury caused by unsafe property conditions.

Liability Based on the Status of the Injured Person

Until fairly recently, the defendant's legal duty of care under premises liability rules depended on the status of the person who was injured: Were they an invitee, licensee, or trespasser?.

An invitee is someone who enters a property for the benefit (financial or otherwise) of the defendant (like a client at a hair salon) or who enters a building or area that's open to the public (like a shopping center). Most states' laws used to say that a property owner or other defendant owed invitees a duty of reasonable care in controlling and maintaining the premises. This duty includes an obligation to make the property reasonably safe for others

A licensee is any person who has the defendant's permission (express or implied) to enter the property. For example, social guests are licensees. When it came to licensees, most states said that a defendant must fix or warn of concealed dangers the licensee doesn't know about or wouldn't be expected to know about.

Note that under this historical approach, if a social guest was asked to leave the property and refused, the guest's status would likely change from "licensee" to "trespasser."

A trespasser is someone who unlawfully enters or remains on someone else's land. Traditionally, the defendant owed no duty to trespassers except to refrain from willfully or recklessly harming the trespasser.

Liability Based on Ordinary Negligence

Most states have done away with the "status-based" approach in favor of a "reasonable person" standard for all entrants onto the defendant's land. California was one of the first states to make this switch.

Under this standard, a defendant has a duty to warn others about property-related dangers that aren't known to the visitor and which the visitor couldn't reasonably be expected to discover on their own. This duty extends to dangers the defendant should have known about if they had exercised proper care.

In other words, a property owner or other defendant can't avoid liability by claiming they didn't know about an unsafe condition on the property if that lack of knowledge was because the defendant failed to reasonably inspect and maintain the property.

A note on the modern approach to a property owner's legal duty to trespassers: It's still largely true that a trespasser can't hold a property owner/operator liable for injuries unless there was some intentional or reckless conduct on the part of the owner/operator. But the property owner/operator's legal obligations are greater if trespassers are common on the property or if the trespasser is a child. Learn more about property owner liability for trespasser injuries.

Was the Defendant's Negligence a Substantial Factor in Causing Your Injury?

You must show that the defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing your injuries. The harm you suffered must be reasonably foreseeable in light of the defendant's action (or inaction).

And the defendant's negligence doesn't have to be the sole cause of your injury, but it must have materially contributed to it. (Get more details on proving negligence in a personal injury case.)

For example, if the handrail on a staircase is broken, it's reasonably foreseeable that someone using the stairs could fall and become injured. Learn more about liability for stair-related accidents.

Premises Liability Injuries: Insurance Claim or Lawsuit?

So far, we've focused on how and when property owners and others can be held legally responsible for injuries caused by unsafe property conditions. But it's just as important to understand the two main ways you can get compensation for your injury-related losses ("damages"): the insurance claim process and the court-based lawsuit process.

With many types of premises liability injury claims, an insurance policy will cover the accident or incident that led to the injury. So, for example, if you slip and fall in a store, the store's commercial liability insurance will apply to the accident, and you can make an insurance claim with the store's insurer. Similarly, if a broken handrail on your neighbor's front porch causes you to fall down the stairs, your neighbor's homeowner's insurance policy will apply, and you can file a claim with your neighbor's insurance company.

No matter what kind of insurance policy applies to your premises liability-related insurance claim, the goal here is to present your claim in a way that:

  • makes the property owner/operator's liability clear, and
  • details the nature and extent of your injuries and all related losses so that you get a fair personal injury settlement.

If there's no insurance policy that covers your injury, or if you've reached an impasse in the insurance claim process, you might need to file a personal injury lawsuit in court against the property owner/operator. If you don't already have a lawyer on your side by this point, now's the time to get one. Learn more about the different ways to file a personal injury claim.

Getting Help With a Premises Liability Injury Claim

If you're ready to reach out to a lawyer after a slip and fall or any other kind of premises liability injury, you can use the features on this page to connect with a personal injury lawyer in your area.

Especially when your injuries are significant, and the property owner's insurance company isn't coming to the settlement table with a fair offer, having an experienced legal professional on your side can be crucial. Learn more about finding the right personal injury lawyer for you and your case.

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