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Property Owners' Legal Duty To Prevent Injury

In personal injury cases, property owners and possessors owe different duty of care standards to others. Under premises liability law, they must generally make their property safe from hazardous conditions. For example, a homeowner must reasonably ensure the safety of social guests. Injured parties who sustain damages from inadequate security may file premises liability claims. An injured person may be able to recover medical bills from an owner or their insurance policy.

The law recognizes three main categories of people who might be on an owner's property:

In states that distinguish among these categories of people, the legal duty owed to each is different.


An invitee is a person who is invited onto property for business reasons. It would include customers of a retail store, which is a commercial property. Another example would be potential buyers entering an open house even though it is a residential property. A real estate agent or homeowner should ensure that a home is safe for the entry of prospective buyers who are invited to view the property.

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 has a duty to repair and correct known dangers. They also have a duty to reasonably inspect for, discover, and correct unknown hazards. This goes for all 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.

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 similar circumstances. If a premises liability case goes to trial, it is left up to a jury to decide what is reasonable under the circumstances.

It might be reasonable to expect a business owner to:

  • Conduct regular inspections
  • Maintain and clean stairwells
  • Ensure walkways and parking lots are clear of obstructions, including tripping hazards

However, it would probably be considered unreasonable to expect a business owner to keep watch all day long. They can't be present every second to make sure nothing is spilled or broken in the stairwells.


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 to 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. The owner does not have a duty to inspect for and discover unknown dangers, as they do with invitees.


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.

An owner may know or be reasonably expected to know that there are frequent trespassers on their property. In such a case the owner will be liable for injuries caused by an unsafe condition on the property if:

  • The condition is one the owner created or maintained
  • The condition was likely to cause death or serious bodily harm
  • The condition was such that the owner had reason to believe trespassers would not discover it
  • The owner failed to exercise reasonable care to warn trespassers of the condition and the risk presented

The disclaimer is that some states treat trespassers with more compassion. For example, owners who know their dogs are vicious may be responsible for dog bite injuries to trespassers.

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 have a duty to ensure that their property is safe. The law recognizes that children are naive to dangers on property. They could be lured to dangerous conditions such as:

  • Deep swimming pools
  • Abandoned wells
  • Heavy machinery

These potential hazards are referred to as attractive nuisances.

A property owner may be liable for an injury to a trespassing child if the property owner 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 they would not be aware of. In addition, if the utility of the condition is small compared to the risk it represents, the owner is going to be found liable.

A property owner has a duty to inspect their property to see if there are any dangerous conditions that might attract children. If there are, they must act soon to correct the unsafe condition(s).

A Personal Injury Attorney Can Help

If you have additional questions about your legal duty to prevent injuries, get legal advice from a premises liability attorney. These kinds of personal injury lawyers understand how real estate law intersects with personal injury issues. They also have experience battling insurance companies who are hesitant to pay out money to injured parties.

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