Someone slips and falls on a grape in the produce section of a grocery store, and is seriously injured. A girl is assaulted in her dorm stairwell; she is severely hurt and ends up dropping out of school. Several schoolchildren die when an amusement park ride malfunctions during a class field trip. Where’s the justice here?
The law can never fully compensate for tragedy, but it can attempt to seek justice as best it can. For all these scenarios, one area of the law attempts to provide a remedy: the area of premises liability law.
Here, property owners, as well as those in control of the property (landlords, managers, tenants) are held responsible for any accident or injury that occurs on that property. These “premises liability” claims run the gamut in severity: they cover the most minor scrapes from a neighbor’s slip and fall on your snowy driveway to the massive injuries sustained by those in an elevator fall.
While each state’s law is distinct, their overall approach to premises liability can be essentially divided into two camps. Many states focus on the injured person, assessing the extent of responsibility based upon whether or not the visitor was a trespasser, an invitee, or a licensee.
An “invitee” has been asked to enter the property, such as a dinner guest, a client, or a customer. A “trespasser,” on the other hand, has no right be on the property. Burglars, rapists, thieves, and muggers are all trespassers. A “licensee” enters the property for his own purpose, but does have approval to enter. The meter reader is a licensee.
In these states, the extent of responsibility for any harm will depend upon why the visitor was on the property: e.g., property owners are not held legally responsible for the safety of their property when trespassers are injured but they are liable for injuries to their dinner guests.
In other states, the law focuses upon the property itself. Here, the property owners are required to maintain the same standard of care for all visitors regardless of whether or not they are invited. Property owners are responsible for inspecting their property, and repairing unsafe conditions. Their failure to inspect, and thereafter to repair, will result in liability for anyone who suffers injury as a result of the unsafe condition.
Premises liability does have special circumstances: if the injured was responsible for what happened, the owner will not be held accountable. Conversely, certain situations are considered inherently dangerous, and the owner will be responsible for any injury resulting from them. Inherently dangerous conditions include swimming pools, water wells, and keeping wild animals as pets on the property.
Personal injury attorneys regularly assist injury victims, as well as property owners, in dealing with premises liability claims. Often times, insurance carriers will be involved, since insurance policies may provide coverage for the incident under homeowners’ coverage or other type of land use policy.
Premises liability claims are among the most commonly filed lawsuits in the country. In 2006, the mean award in a premises liability case was $1,096,456, with awards ranging from $50,000 to over $2.5 million.
Trends in premises liability include a continuing increase in class-action claims based upon injury sustained from asbestos. In 2002, the Rand Institute for Civil Justice estimated that less than half of the total asbestos-related personal injury claims have been filed. The Institute warned defendants, i.e., property owners and their insurers, of a remaining potential asbestos litigation cost of approximately $200 billion.
Another trend in premises liability involves gunshot victims and the responsibility of property owners for guns found on their property, including school campuses, as well as for negligent gun storage. Stricter legal liability is being sought for gun injuries, expanding in scope to include not only gun owners but property owners, as well.