Liability for Personal Injuries on Private Property

Learn about the rules governing liability for injuries that occur on private commercial and residential property.

By , J.D. · DePaul University College of Law

There are basically two forms of private property: commercial and residential. When a person is injured on private property owned by someone else, the property owner may face liability for the injury regardless of whether the property is used for commercial or residential purposes.

But the rules of personal injury liability on private property vary by state as well as by whether the property is used for business or residential purposes.

This article discusses the types of lawsuits that property owners may face in the context of both commercial and residential property.

Businesses' Liability for Personal Injuries

The laws of most states hold business owners to a relatively high standard of care in terms of maintaining a safe environment. Business owners generally have an obligation to keep property in a reasonably safe condition, so as to avoid injuries to customers or other individuals.

This duty includes an obligation to make reasonable inspections of the property to ensure that it is in a safe condition. So, business owners cannot always defend against a lawsuit by arguing that nobody employed by the business was aware of the defect that caused the injury. If a reasonably regular inspection would have uncovered the defect, the business owner may be liable.

A business owner's duty of care also often includes a duty to provide anti-slip devices. Particularly on rainy or snowy days, a business owner might reasonably be expected to at least provide a mat near each doorway to prevent the accumulation of puddles or a slippery floor.

In many cases, a business owner may be able to satisfy the duty of care by warning of danger. For example, if a floor is wet and slippery, placing a sign near the wet area may be sufficient to free the business of liability in the event of a slip and fall injury.

In most cases, business owners are not responsible for the acts of third parties. So, if one person assaults another person while on the business owner's property, the injured individual will not usually be able to sue the business for the injuries.

On the other hand, if the actions of the third party were foreseeable, the business owner might have a responsibility to prevent the actions. For example, if a business owner's customers are regularly being assaulted and robbed due to a lack of security and proper lighting in the parking lot, a victim of such a crime may be able to sue the business owner for the resulting injuries.

Homeowners' Liability for Personal Injuries

Laws that cover homeowner liability for the injury of a guest vary by state, but the laws of many states classify injured individuals as trespassers, licensees and invitees. A homeowner has different responsibilities with respect to each classification. A trespasser is a person who is not permitted on the property; a licensee is a person who is permitted on the property but who is not there for business purposes; and an invitee is a person who is on the property for business purposes.

Trespassers. A homeowner must refrain from willful conduct intended to injure anyone on the property (including a trespasser). But the homeowner generally has no other responsibility to protect the safety of unanticipated trespassers. But a homeowner does have a responsibility to protect the safety of an anticipated trespasser. The homeowner must warn the trespasser of dangerous non-obvious conditions on the property, usually by putting up a sign.

Licensees. A homeowner also has a duty to warn licensees (including most social guests) of dangerous conditions on the property. But once the licensee is warned, the homeowner is generally free from liability. The homeowner does not need to warn a licensee about open and obvious dangerous conditions.

Invitees. An invitee receives the highest level of protection. The homeowner generally has an obligation to take reasonable measures to make the property safe for the invitee.

Particular Dangerous Conditions

The number of potentially dangerous conditions on a homeowner's property is infinite, but here are a few common examples to provide a guide for how courts might evaluate a particular condition.

Staircase. Common conditions associated with staircase accidents may not necessarily be considered dangerous conditions. So, homeowners may avoid liability to social guests for stairways with insufficient lighting, for example. However, homeowners do tend to be liable for less common conditions, such as a failure to extend a handrail to a final step or by having an unmarked door that could surprise a guest by leading immediately to a basement stairway, with no landing in between.

Swimming Pool. Swimming pools are a surprisingly common cause of death among children in the United States. Laws vary by state, but as a general rule, homeowners are not usually liable for the deaths of trespassing children in pools. But certain factors make it more likely that a homeowner may be liable. For example, a pool that has a particularly enticing visual appeal to a child may be considered more dangerous than the average pool. Also, a pool that would be particularly easy for a child to access might be considered particularly dangerous. "Attractive Nuisance" laws cover these issues.

Glass Door. Glass doors are common enough that a homeowner will not usually be liable if a guest becomes injured by walking into the door. Special circumstances would usually have to be required to justify liability. For example, if the door is in an abnormal location, such that a guest could not be expected to anticipate that a glass door was present, the homeowner might be liable for injuries to the guest.

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