Either a property owner or the tenant/occupier of property can usually be held responsible in a premises liability case. The issue of who is at fault for an injury caused by unsafe property conditions usually boils down to who was in control—or who should have been in control—of the area where the injury occurred. Read on to learn more.
An occupier of property will generally be held responsible for injuries occurring on the property, regardless of who the actual owner is. The typical occupier, when it's not the property owner, will be a residential or commercial tenant.
However, even someone who is occupying property without the owner’s permission or knowledge can be held responsible under a premises liability fault theory if a judge or jury determines they were in control of the land at the time of the accident. A widely used test goes like this:
1) Whoever is occupying the property with an intent to control it is usually liable.
2) The last person to occupy abandoned property with an intent to control it is usually liable.
3) Whoever is legally entitled to occupy the property is liable when the first two tests above don't apply.
So, a tenant or other occupier is not only potentially liable for injuries occurring on that part of the property they are legally renting out, but on any part of the property that they intentionally take control of.
If a property is not rented out or otherwise occupied, the owner is a potentially liable party. However, even with a tenant or other occupier on the property, an owner can still be liable (in whole or in part) in several situations.
First, an owner can be liable for injuries occurring on any part of the property over which the owner has retained control. For example, common areas used by multiple tenants are legally considered under the control of the owner. To illustrate, if a tenant or other person invited onto the property is injured in a common area like a hallway or staircase, the owner (not the tenant) will probably be held liable.
An owner can also be held liable if he or she rents out the property in a dangerous condition without warning the tenant. In that case, even if the tenant is in total control of the property, any injuries stemming from the previously existing dangerous condition will be the owner’s responsibility. Note that if the owner tells the tenant about the dangerous condition and notifies the tenant that he or she must repair the condition as part of the lease, responsibility shifts back to the tenant.
Finally, if a lease or ordinance doesn’t make an owner responsible for dangerous conditions that occur while the tenant is in control of the property, the tenant will be held responsible for any injuries caused by the condition. However, if a lease, ordinance or other regulation requires the owner to repair certain conditions, or if the owner otherwise promises to fix a condition, but the condition causes an injury anyway, the owner will be liable for any injuries despite the tenant’s control of the property.
Learn more about a landlord's liability for a tenant's injuries.
Example A: A tenant invites a guest to her apartment. A puddle has formed inside the tenant’s apartment next to the tenant’s umbrella stand. The guest slips and falls because of the puddle, and is injured. Because the injury occurred in the tenant’s apartment and the puddle was caused by the tenant’s own umbrella stand (which the tenant controls), the tenant will be liable to the guest.
Example B: A tenant invites a guest to her apartment. At the main entrance to the apartment building, the guest slips on a puddle that has formed next to an umbrella stand provided by the owner-landlord. The landlord will probably be held liable for the guest’s injuries.
Example C: A grocery business owner runs his store in a leased building. A customer slips on a puddle of milk and is injured. The business owner is liable to the customer. Learn more about in-store slip and fall accidents.
Example D: A building owner leases her building to a grocery business. The building owner knows that the automatic doors at the entrance have malfunctioned in the past, but does not tell the store proprietor, and the proprietor is unable to discover the potential for malfunction himself. A customer is injured when the doors malfunction and suddenly close on his foot. The building owner is liable to the customer.