When someone visits your property – whether as a social guest or a repairman – there is always a chance that an injury could result. As a landowner, you may not know the extent of your potential liability when someone becomes injured on your property.
Some states, such as Florida, apply different standards of care on the part of the landowner depending on the classification of the injury person (invitee, licensee, or trespasser). Up until 1998, North Carolina courts did so as well. Now, North Carolina applies the same standard of care of landowners to all lawful visitors – landowners must exercise reasonable care in not exposing lawful visitors to dangerous conditions and must warn of any hidden dangers on the property. “Reasonable care” may mean cleaning up a spill on the floor or just maintaining the property in general.
In order to recover damages from a landowner, the visitor must prove that the landowner negligently caused the condition or failed to remedy the condition after the landowner knew or should have known of the condition’s existence. With regards to hidden dangers, a landowner is required to give an adequate warning of the danger’s existence – this could mean a natural condition (ex/ a hill) or an artificial condition (ex/ a swimming pool).
It is important to remember that the above standard of care is for lawful visitors. For unlawful visitors, a landowner’s duty is only to refrain from willfully harming the trespasser. However, there is a particular doctrine – the attractive nuisance doctrine – that allows a landowner to be held liable for injuries sustained by children who trespass on the landowner’s property if the dangerous condition was one likely to attract children.
Common types of premises liability lawsuits include:
(1) “Slip and Fall” – these cases commonly occur on commercial properties, such as a restaurant or grocery store. There are several issues that can arise in these cases – How long was the dangerous condition (i.e., the spill or liquid) present? Was a warning present (i.e., one of those yellow “Caution” signs)?
(2) Property Defects – these cases can involve injuries resulting from a broken railing or broken stairs.
(3) Dog Bites – a landowner may be liable for any injuries that his or her dog causes if the dog had shown dangerous tendencies in the past and the landowner (and dog owner) had knowledge of these tendencies at the time of the injury.
There are certain situations in which a landowner may defensibly raise the doctrine of contributory negligence, which bars recovery by the injured party if they are partially at fault. This could mean that the visitor did not properly look where they were going or failed to act reasonably at the time they became injured. Imagine a visitor going downstairs to your basement without turning the lights on and then tripping on the stairs.