Premises liability is the legal theory that can let injured people hold a property owner liable for damages they suffered in an accident on the owner’s property. This is a complicated area of the law, and the outcome of a case can vary widely depending upon the exact circumstances of the accident.
A common set of facts in a premises liability case is a slip-and-fall accident in a grocery store or restaurant. The idea that a property owner should be held legally responsible for such an injury stems from the concepts of duty and negligence. In a car accident case, a driver has a duty of reasonable care to avoid the risk of an accident that might hurt other people. When they breach this duty, and cause an accident through their negligence, injuring another person, the injured may hold the negligent driver liable for their damages.
In a premises liability case, the property owner has a duty toward people who visit the property. Just as with a car accident case, when a property owner breaches that duty, and that breach causes an accident in which another person is injured, the property owner can be held liable for the injured party’s damages.
It’s important to note that the property owner’s duty of care is limited, and it depends upon the reason the person is on the property. Pennsylvania law recognizes three statuses: invitees, licensees and trespassers, and a property owner’s duty is different toward each.
An invitee is a member of the public who is invited onto the property for the mutual benefit of the owner and invitee. For instance, a grocery store owner invites members of the public inside so that they can buy food from the store. To these guests, the grocery store owner owes the highest duty. The owner must keep the premises reasonably free of safety hazards so as to avoid the risk of a foreseeable accident. If the owner knows of a hidden hazard, the owner must fix it as soon as possible, or at least warn invitees of the danger. If the owner learns of a spill, the owner must warn customers and clean it up as soon as possible.
A licensee is someone who has permission to be on the property for their own benefit. For example, a graduate student asks permission from the owner to observe the habits of shoppers at a grocery store in order to collect data for a research paper. The owner doesn’t necessarily have a duty to seek out hidden hazards in order to protect the student in this case, but if the owner knows of a hidden danger, the owner must warn the student about it. For instance, if the owner knows that one of the store’s light fixtures may fall at any moment, the owner should warn the graduate student against setting up her observation station underneath it.
Trespassers are people who do not have permission to be on the property. An owner doesn’t owe a duty to protect trespassers from spills or unstable lighting fixtures. Generally, an owner can be held liable for injury to a trespasser only in cases of willful or wanton conduct. For example, if a grocery store owner sets bear traps on the floor of the darkened store overnight in order to catch burglars, an injured burglar may have a legitimate claim for a personal injury case.