Premises Liability FAQ

If you trip and fall or are otherwise injured on someone else’s property, can you sue?  This area of law is called premises liability, and it is often misunderstood by non-attorneys. My hope is that the following primer will give you a better idea of how the law operates in these situations.

Premises liability cases can arise from incidents on all types of property, even government property.  However, a defendant’s duty to maintain safe premises can vary significantly depending upon how the plaintiff is classified.  The three main classifications under California law are: (1) invitee; (2) licensee; and (3) trespasser.

An invitee is any person whom the property owner invites onto the property for the owner’s commercial benefit or for a purpose related to owner’s business dealings.  An invitation may be either express or implied. For example, a grocery store shopper is an invitee because the store actively invites the public to come to the store to purchase food. A premises owner owes the highest duty of care to an invitee.

Typically, the law requires a property owner to use ordinary care to warn or otherwise protect an invitee from risks of harm from a condition on the premises if: (1) the risk of harm is unreasonable, and (2) the possessor knows or in the exercise of ordinary care should know of the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to an invitee.

Courts often find that a property owner has a duty to invitees to periodically inspect the premises for hazardous conditions. For example, a grocery store may be obligated to periodically check its floors for the presence of spilled or broken merchandise and to make sure that its products are safely secured to the shelves.

Contrary to an invitee, a licensee is a person whom the property owner invites to enter or remain on the premises for any purpose other than business or commercial dealings.  California law generally regards a social guest as a licensee, not an invitee.

Typically, California law will hold a property owner liable for physical harm caused to a licensee by a condition on the premises only if the plaintiff establishes the following three things:

- The owners knew or should have known of the dangerous condition, should have realized that it involved an unreasonable risk of harm, and should have expected that the licensee would not discover or realize the danger;

- The possessor failed to exercise reasonable care to make the condition safe, or to warn the licensee of the condition and the risk involved; and

- The licensee did not know or have reason to know of the condition and the risk involved.

For example, if a homeowner knows that one of the steps leading into a basement is broken (but would not appear to be broken to a reasonably observant individual), the homeowner may be liable to a guest who, without notice of the broken step, is injured when the step gives way.

A trespasser is any person who enters someone’s property for their own personal benefit without the owner’s express or implied permission.  The trespasser’s intent need not be sinister–for example, a boy who jumped his neighbors fence to retrieve a football would likely be classified as a trespasser.

Where property owners are not aware of a trespasser’s presence, they typically have no duty to warn of dangers or make the premises safe for the trespasser’s benefit. If the property owner is aware of the trespassers (for example, children who regularly sneak onto the owner’s property to use a pool), the premises owner may be obligated to exercise ordinary care in relation to the trespasser’s safety.

Here is an incomplete list of conditions that frequently lead to injuries:

- Trash or debris left in places where it becomes a hazard

- Broken/missing railings

- Staircases in disrepair

- Exposed, live electrical wires

- Uncovered holes without proper warning signage

- A lack of functional security lighting

- A lack of operational, marked emergency exits

- Hazardous materials that are not properly stored

If you have been injured as a result of unsafe conditions, you may have a claim against the property owner for damages. You should consult as soon as possible with an experienced premises liability lawyer, such as the attorneys at Phillips & Associates, who will help you determine how to proceed.  The time frame within which you must bring claims for premises liability is typically two years from the date of injury; however it is generally wise to bring claims far in advance of the actual deadline, so it is important to act quickly.

Phillips & Associates has offices in the Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco areas. Call us to set up a free consultation today.