I Fell on Private Property—Who’s Liable?

You know that if you walk into your local grocery store and slip on a tile floor covered in water, you may be able to sue that grocery store owner for negligence. But what if you are invited to a neighborhood party and as you walk up the rickety steps to the deck, one of the steps gives way and causes you to fall, breaking your leg? Can you pursue compensation from the owner of that house?

Business Owners and Home Owners Subject to Different Standards of Safety

When it comes to private property liability, the rules are a little tougher than they are with business property liability. The laws in most states hold business owners to a higher standard of care when it comes to maintaining a safe environment than they do private property owners.

Business owners are expected to keep their properties safe for customers. That includes installing basic safety equipment (like stair railings and security cameras), regularly inspecting the property for possible safety hazards, and placing visible warnings near any potentially unsafe areas.

A homeowner, on the other hand, is not expected to go to such lengths to keep his or her home safe for visitors. There are certain situations, however, where the homeowner can be found negligent.

What Sort of Visitor Are You?

Let’s go back to the example at the beginning of this article. You walked up the stairs and fell through, breaking your leg. The first thing you must determine is whether you had permission to be at that party in the first place.

The law generally qualifies visitors in three categories:

  1. Trespasser: If you’re trespassing on the property, your rights are limited. The homeowner has no responsibility to protect you. He or she does, however, have to post warnings about dangerous, non-obvious conditions, such as a sinkhole.
  2. Licensee: A licensee is a person who was invited onto the property for non-business reasons. As the invited guest at your neighbor’s party, you would qualify as a licensee. A homeowner must warn licensees of any potentially unseen dangerous conditions on the property. Once the warning has taken place, the homeowner is not liable for others’ injuries. The homeowner doesn’t have to warn about open and obvious dangerous conditions.
  3. Invitee: This is someone who enters the property for the mutual benefit of both parties, or to benefit the property owner. An example might include the cable repairman or delivery person. The owner must warn of any potential hazards, and take safety precautions to avoid injuries.

In most cases, the question will be: Should the homeowner have warned about this particularly dangerous condition?

When a Property Owner May Be Held Liable

In the example above, there could be a couple of variations on the situation:

  • The homeowner had a sign by the staircase warning that it was under construction and advising visitors to use another entrance.
  • There was no warning on the staircase, even though the homeowner was aware of its dilapidated condition.

In the first example, the homeowner is unlikely to be found negligent for your injury. In the second, however, he or she may be reasonably expected to have provided a warning, and you may be able to win compensation depending on your state’s laws and any other factors in the case.

A property liability attorney can help. He or she will review the facts in your case and determine whether you may be able to recover compensation.