Dangerous or defective property features may be inside or outside of a government, public, or private building or home. When accidents occur in any of these locations, they fall under what is known as “premises liability.”
Properties or premises may be dangerous for a variety of reasons, including:
- Poor or faulty design
- Faulty building materials
- Improper construction methods
- Clutter or lack of upkeep
- Poor maintenance or lack or repairs
Any of these dangerous circumstances can lead to visitor injuries and dependent upon the circumstances, the property owner, manager, renter, or another party may be held liable for accidents.
Basic Liability Rules for Property Owners and Visitors
Premises liability rules govern the conduct of property owners and visitors. In order for an accident to be a personal injury case, certain circumstances must apply. To understand when injuries are “actionable” under the law, you must first understand the rules of premises liability.
- Owner Responsibilities – a property owner is legally responsible for maintaining their premises to ensure the safety of visitors, customers, renters, and/or others. There’s an expectation that owners will act reasonably to prevent harm, including ensuring the property’s design, construction, and condition are appropriate to ensure safety.
- Visitor Responsibilities – visitors are also expected to act reasonably. If injuries occur because a visitor is acting dangerously, carelessly, or in an unauthorized manner, then the owner is not liable for any injuries that occur.
When an owner or a visitor violates these rules it affects premises liability. For example, an owner that uses defective building materials in the construction of a staircase is responsible for injuries that occur on that staircase. The same is true when the owner knows a staircase is unstable or in need of repairs and:
- fails to correct the problem in a reasonable amount of time
- does nothing to warn visitors about the hazard.
Visitor violations of premises liability rules and responsibilities significantly impact whether or not a personal injury claim is even an option.
If an owner:
- posts warning signs or cordons off a staircase in need of repairs
- the visitor uses the staircase anyway and is injured in the process, then the owner is not liable for injuries that occur.
The same is true when a visitor acts irresponsibly on a staircase, like sliding down the banisters or hoping over the railing. In each of these instances, the visitor failed to act reasonably in preventing his or her own injuries.
How to Determine Who is Responsible for Dangerous/Defective Property Cases
Determining responsibility or liability in premises liability cases requires examining the details of the incident:
- Did the visitor have a legitimate reason for being on the premises?
- Did the owner maintain the premises appropriately?
- Did the owner act reasonably to prevent injuries?
- Did the visitor/injured person act reasonably?
If clutter or debris left lying about cause injuries, it may at first seem pretty clear that the owner is at fault. After all, he or she failed to ensure the premises were safe for visitors. A visitor is expected to act reasonably to ensure his or her own safety too, which includes paying attention to his or her surroundings and avoiding areas where hazards are obvious.
Responsibility in some cases is pretty clear. Most premises liability cases take quite a bit or time and examination of evidence before fault can be determined though. Even when fault seems clear, assigning liability can be challenging. An attorney is usually necessary to make a clear determination and to prove liability.
Owner vs. Occupier
It’s common for the owner of a property to be different than the “occupier” or tenant. This type of situation complicates the determination of liability even further in an injury case. The owner, renter, or even another third party, like a construction company or contractor, can be at fault or partially at fault for injures that occur on the premises.
The type of property and the circumstances of the accident determine what rules apply and who may be responsible.
- Commercial Properties – If you’re injured at a commercial location, like a store, office building, or other business, then property owner may be responsible. Fault for injuries can sometimes be the responsibility of the renter though, if the commercial location is owned by one party but occupied by another. The circumstances of the case and how liability is addressed in the rental contract affect who is responsible.
- Private Residences – Assignment of liability with private property cases depends on the kind of property involved and, of course, the circumstances of the accident and injuries.
- Private Homes – Homeowners are responsible for injuries that occur on their properties, though when injuries occur because of the work of contractors, construction companies, utility companies, or others, liability issues can get a bit muddled.
- Rental Properties – When accidents occur on the premises of rental residences, whether houses or apartment buildings, the property owner or the tenant may be responsible. The circumstances of the accident, where the accident occurs, and the agreements laid out in the rental lease impact who is responsible for an accident.
- Public or Government Property – Cities, towns, county governments and other entities can be held responsible for injuries that occur on public o government property. These locations include public streets, sidewalks, and parks as well as city or town buildings and parking lots.
It's best to name all parties associated with the property in any claim you file. It’s the responsibility of the insurance company of the property owner, renter, or occupier to make decisions about who is liable for a claim filed for injuries on the premises. An attorney can help you file your claim and negotiate with the insurance company.