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Property Owners' Legal Duty to Prevent Injury

In many states, property owners and possessors owe different degrees of responsibility, or duties, to people who come onto their property, depending on how such people are categorized. The law recognizes three main categories of people who might be on someone else's property: invitees, licensees, and trespassers. In states that still distinguish among these categories of people, the legal duty owed to each category is different. It is important to ask an attorney whether these categories and standards of care apply in your state.

Invitees - An invitee is a person who is invited onto property for business reasons, and would include customers of a retail store and job applicants. Property owners owe the highest degree of care to invitees to make sure they are safe from dangers on their property. Under this standard, a property owner not only has a duty to repair and correct known dangers, he also has a duty to reasonably inspect for, discover, and correct unknown hazards in those areas of the premises to which an invitee might have access.

These obligations might simply mean that the property owner or possessor (a business occupying the property) has a duty to take reasonable steps to ensure that the environment is safe for patrons. While there is no precise way to measure what is reasonable, the law defines "reasonable" as what a person of ordinary intelligence and judgment would do under the same circumstances. If a premises liability case goes to trial, it is left up to a jury to decide what is reasonable under the circumstances.

By way of example, it might be reasonable to expect a business owner to conduct regular inspections, maintain, and clean stairwells in his/her property to make sure they are safe. However, it would probably be considered unreasonable to expect a business owner to keep watch all day long to make sure nothing is spilled or broken in the stairwells.

Licensees - A licensee is someone allowed on a premises for social purposes, or for solely their own purposes. Property owners are required to ensure that conditions are safe for licensees, but the level of care owed licensees is lower than that owed to invitees. A property owner is only required to take reasonable care to protect licensees from any known hazards on the property, and does not have a duty to inspect for and discover unknown dangers, as he/she does with invitees.

Trespassers - A trespasser is someone who is not authorized to be on the property at issue. Landowners are not obligated to protect trespassers who enter their property without permission, but they cannot willfully injure them. Also, if an owner knows, or should know, that there are frequent trespassers on his/her property, he will be liable for their injuries caused by an unsafe condition on the property if: 1) the condition is one the owner created or maintained; 2) the condition was likely to cause death or serious bodily harm; 3) the condition was such that the owner had reason to believe trespassers would not discover it; and, 4) the owner failed to exercise reasonable care to warn trespassers of the condition and the risk presented.

Trespassing children - A different rule applies where trespassing children are involved. In the case of children who wander onto a property without authorization, property owners do have a duty to ensure that their property is safe. The logic behind this exception is that children are sometimes naive to dangers on property, and could in fact be lured to dangerous conditions such as a swimming pool, an abandoned well, or heavy machinery. These potential hazards are referred to as "attractive nuisances." Thus, a property owner has a duty to inspect his/her property to see if there are any potentially dangerous conditions that might attract children and, if there are, act immediately to correct the unsafe condition(s). A property owner may be liable for an injury to a trespassing child if he/she knew, or should have known, young children were likely to trespass in the area of a dangerous condition on the property that involved an unreasonable risk of bodily harm to children, of which risk young children would not be aware, and when the utility of the condition is small compared to the risk it represents.

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