In civil (non-criminal) law, premises liability refers to the duty of a property owner to maintain a property that is under the owner’s direct control in a manner that poses the least amount of risk of accidental injury to a visitor. The law of premises liability, in most cases, makes no distinction between the type of visitor or the circumstances that led to the visitor’s presence although it has been held that trespassers are owed less duty than invitees or licensees.
- Trespassers are those who are on a property without the owner’s permission so long as the trespasser knew or should have known that they had no valid reason to be on a given property at the time.
- Invitees are individuals who are on a property for a legitimate reason, even if no specific invitation was issued by the property owner. Invitees can include customers who are visiting a store, shoppers at a mall, or even members of a congregation at a house of worship.
- Licensees are generally those who have paid an admission fee in order to have been granted access to a property for a specific purpose and a specific period of time. Licensees typically include patrons of an amusement park, a movie theater, or those attending a sports event.
Property owners are expected to be alert for the development of situations that may pose the danger of injury to a visitor. If a danger develops, a property owner is expected to:
- If feasible, correct or repair the newly-discovered problem, or
- Post a warning or erect a barrier that indicates the presence of a danger, or
- Suspend access to the area until the problem is corrected, even if that means a loss of business income.
In the case of potential trespassers, a property owner has the right to protect his or her property from malicious damage or theft. A property owner cannot, however, knowingly create a hazard that can be expected to cause an injury. As a general rule, if a property owner creates a hazard to deter trespassers and that hazard could be expected to cause an injury to a legitimate visitor the property owner may be held liable for injuries to a trespasser.
Although liability in premises liability is often easily decided, there is special application of premises liability law that applies to cases of an attractive nuisance.
Property owners have a legal duty to maintain property under their control in a state that poses the least degree of the risk of injury to invitees, licensees, and trespassers. As a result, the question “What is considered sufficient warning that some danger may exist on a property?” often arises.
In legal terms, an attractive nuisance is any object or condition that may lure an unwary visitor onto a property. Most cases of an attractive nuisance involve objects such as unattended swimming pools, abandoned cars or appliances, or even unfinished construction that a child might see as a harmless diversion rather than a danger to their own safety. Even though a property owner may have posted warning signs or erected barriers to entry such as fences, children are notorious for their tendency to either ignore such warnings and/or to find a way around any barrier. In cases where attractive nuisance is proven, the property owner will often be faced with substantial losses as a result of any injuries that occur on their premises.
In closing, the law applying to premises liability can be quite complicated and any questions regarding the duties of responsibility or liability should be discussed in detail with an Charlottesville premises liability attorney having experience in both business and personal injury law.
Thanks to our friends and contributor from MartinWren, P.C. for their insight into premises liability and personal injury practice.