While visiting your friend, you slip and fall on his snow-covered walkway and suffer a back injury. Is your friend legally responsible for your injury?
After installing your new cable system, the cable guy trips and falls over a skateboard your child left at the bottom of the steps, and twists his ankle. Are you now obligated to pay for his medical bills and lost wages?
This article looks at slip and fall accidents on residential properties and some of the important legal and factual issues to consider.
A Homeowner's Duty to Maintain Safe Premises
A homeowner has a legal obligation to maintain his premises in a reasonably safe condition and to warn visitors to the property of any unseen defects. In many states, however, the extent of liability often depends upon the visitor’s legal status at the time of injury. There are three classifications of persons who enter onto another’s property: invitee, licensee, and trespasser. An “invitee” is a person who is invited onto a property in order to provide a benefit to the property owner. A property owner owes the highest duty of care to an invitee. A licensee is a person who has permission to enter the property, such as a social guest. The property owner owes a lesser duty of care to a licensee than to an invitee. A trespasser is a person who enters the property without the owner’s permission. A property owner owes the lowest duty of care totrespassers.
Homeowner Duties to Business Invitees and Social Guests
A homeowner owes the highest duty of care to the class of persons known as invitees. An example of an invitee would be an acquaintance you invite to your property to care for your houseplants while you are on vacation. In many states a social guest is also considered an invitee. (Some states classify a social guest as a “licensee,” which lowers the homeowner’s duty). A homeowner owes an invitee the duty of care to inspect and maintain the premises and to warn of any dangerous conditions on the property of which the homeowner is aware and which are not otherwise apparent.
For instance, a homeowner could be liable to a contractor who is injured by falling through a weakened section of the home’s roof if the homeowner asked the contractor to perform work on the roof and failed to inform him of the known danger. However, if the danger was obvious -- a gigantic hole in the roof -- then the homeowner would not be obligated to warn the roofer of such an open and obvious condition. (Learn more about homeowner liability for contractor injuries.)
Duty Owed to Trespassing Children
In general, a homeowner does not owe a duty of care to trespassers -- those persons who enter the property without permission. However, a special duty has arisen for trespassing children. Known as the “attractive nuisance” doctrine, a homeowner may be liable to a child who is injured on the property, even where he was not invited onto the property, where the homeowner knows of a dangerous condition and a child may not appreciate the danger. Although commonly associated with swimming pools, the attractive nuisance doctrine has been applied in slip and falls on a residential property. Whether a homeowner would be liable to trespassing child will depend on many factors, including the child’s age, experience, familiarity with the property, and the nature of the danger.
Making the Case Against a Homeowner
Slip and fall accidents can cause serious injuries and the injured person may be entitled to compensation. Victims of slip and falls should document their injuries with medical records and photographs. This kind of documentation can be useful in negotiating a settlement with the property owner or insurance company, and will be useful if the case proceeds to trial. As is the case with many slip and fall accidents, liability may be dependent on the unique circumstances of the particular case.
Tips for Homeowners
Because of the potential for damages exist, homeowners would be wise to regularly inspect their properties for dangerous conditions and to make sure that they warn visitors to their property about those conditions. In many cases, a homeowner may be able to avoid liability where there is proof that the injured party was adequately warned about a potential danger.