Under premises liability rules, a property owner's potential liability for injuries occurring on their property can be affected by the presence (or absence) of warning signs. In this article, we'll look at when warning signs might be a good idea, and how a sign might affect a visitor's personal injury claim against a property owner.
In most cases, personal injury liability is determined by whether or not the defendant (the person being sued) was negligent. So, is the failure to post a warning sign "negligence" in the eyes of the law? If a property owner does post a prominent warning sign, can he or she avoid liability?
What is negligence? The legal concept of negligence holds people accountable in a civil lawsuit seeking a remedy for the unintentional harm they cause to others. To prove negligence in a case arising from injury on unsafe property, the injured person (the plaintiff) must show that the property owner/occupier failed to act with reasonable care under the circumstances, and that the plaintiff was injured as a result.
What is "reasonable care"? A property owner/occupier has a legal duty to exercise reasonable care in maintaining his or her property. To determine whether or not a property owner/occupier acted reasonably, courts ask what a reasonably prudent owner/occupier would do under the circumstances that led to the plaintiff's injury, and whether the property owner/occupier exercised at least that level of care.
When it comes to maintenance and security of property "reasonable care" usually means repairing all known and readily ascertainable dangers and giving visitors notice of any non-obvious safety issues. In other words, a property owner/occupier likely has a duty to warn of known and latent dangers which are not known to the visitor and which the visitor could not reasonably discover on his or her own. This duty extends to dangers which the property owner/occupier should have known about if he or she exercised reasonable care. If a warning sign is present, the visitor may be said to have "assumed the risk" of any dangers.
Other key issues in a negligence determination include foreseeability and proximate cause.
Historically, whether or not a property owner/occupier was liable for injuries was dependent upon the status of the person entering the land. More recently, however, states rejected this approach and use principles of ordinary negligence when it comes to premises liability.
Liability Based Upon the Status of the Person on the Land. The historical approach used in many jurisdictions to determine the property owner/occupier's standard of care depends upon the status of the person entering the land: (1) invitees, (2) licensees, and (3) trespassers.
"Status" Versus Negligence Approach. Many jurisdictions have abolished this "status"-based approach and simply use the "reasonable care" standard (discussed above) for all entrants onto the land. California was the first state to take such an approach.
One key determination is the effectiveness of the warning sign. A warning sign is only effective if it puts the person entering the property on notice of a certain dangers. A sign that is too small, that is placed in a non-prominent location, or is unreadable would not be adequate because it would probably not put the visitor on notice of the danger. In such situations, the property owner/occupier would probably still be liable for any injuries suffered on the land, regardless of the presence of the warning sign. The same holds true if there is one warning sign on property that consists of dozens of acres.
An injury suffered on someone else's property is almost always going to be covered under the property owner/occupier's homeowner's insurance coverage, and perhaps under some form of "umbrella" coverage as well.
In some cases, the injured person might be able to settle a claim with the property owner/occupier's insurer without filing a personal injury lawsuit. But if your injuries are significant and you want to make sure your right to fair compensation is protected, it may be time to discuss your situation with a personal injury lawyer.