What is Premises Liability?

Premises liability is a body of law that imposes liability on the possessor of land or premises for injuries suffered by persons who are present on the premises. In order for premises liability to apply, the defendant must be in possession of the land or premises and there must be negligence or other wrongful conduct on his part. It is the possession and control of the premises that is key rather than passive ownership.

Types of Premises Liability Cases

Premises liability cases are often referred to as slip and fall accidents because these are the most common type of premises liability claims.

Slip and Fall Accidents

Slip and fall accidents can occur in a variety of public and private settings, including stores, malls, restaurants, parking lots, sidewalks, and other public and private places. Slip and fall accidents have been known to occur when conditions such as the following are present:

· Wet flooring

· Loose or torn carpeting

· A step with no warning

· Broken sidewalk

· A manhole with no warnings

· Uneven ground or level changes without warning

The occurrence of an injury on someone else’s premises does not automatically establish liability on the part of the premises owner. The plaintiff must still prove the defendant’s negligence or other wrongful conduct.

Inadequate Security

A second main area of premises liability concerns inadequate security. Inadequate security cases usually involve situations where someone is victimized by an assault or crime on the business premises. Many of these claims arise at hotels, restaurants, apartments or shopping centers. The lack of security may involve inadequate lighting, absence of security guards or other measures which render the likelihood of assault or criminal activity reasonably foreseeable. The property owner or manager has a duty to use reasonable care to protect those legally on the premises from foreseeable harm.

Other Premises Liability Cases

While slip and fall and inadequate security cases are the most common types of premises liability cases, premises liability lawsuits may stem from any kind of unsafe or dangerous condition in a public or private property, including:

  • Toxic substances
  • Dangerous dogs or other animals
  • Improperly designed or maintained equipment or facilities
  • Failure to warn of hazardous conditions on the property

Possessor’s Duty of Care – Evolving General Standard

Traditionally, the legal duty owed by the defendant was determined by plaintiff’s status as an invitee, licensee or trespasser. An invitee is one who is on the premises to mutually benefit himself and the possessor. For example, a customer of a restaurant or store is an invitee. A possessor owed the highest duty of care to an invitee.

A licensee has permission to enter the property but does not confer any economic benefit on the possessor. An example is a social guest at a private home. The possessor’s duty to the licensee was less than that owed to an invitee. Generally, the possessor had a duty not to willfully injure the licensee, as well as a duty to warn of hidden dangers.

The trespasser is an individual who is on the premises without the possessor’s consent. The traditional rule was that the trespasser assumes the risk of all hazards he finds there.

Although this status-based duty of care still maintains some validity, particularly in certain states, the modern trend has been to apply a general reasonable care standard to all plaintiffs. In some states, the general standard of reasonable care applies to all plaintiffs except trespassers. In other states, including California, the reasonable care standard applies even to trespassers. In the seminal case of Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, the California Supreme Court all but eliminated distinctions between plaintiffs as invitees or trespassers and ruled that a number of factors are weighed in determining liability, the most important of which is foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff.