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Dangerous Property/Buildings

What Is Considered to Be a Dangerous Structure?

Property owners owe a duty of care to whoever visits their property. Generally, the duty of care is to simply keep their premises and visitors safe. If a property owner's building, property, or structure are dangerous, and someone visiting their property becomes injured, the property owner may be legally liable. Any dangerous property or building that a property owner has control over may be labeled as a dangerous structure. Additionally, dangerous property may also include things such as hazardous waste spills.

Dangerous structures often become dangerous due to daily wear and tear, or a lack of maintenance. Property owners have a duty to keep their property safe and maintained, no matter if the property is residential or commercial. Some examples of residential structures that could be considered to be dangerous include:

  • Balconies, decks, and porches;
  • Staircases and elevators; or
  • Handrails and other support beams.

Examples of commercial structure that could be considered to be dangerous include:

  • Stairwells;
  • Overhead lighting;
  • Overhead shelves;
  • Product displays; or
  • Faulty doors, such as automatic doors.

Businesses also owe an additional duty of care to its employees. That additional duty of care is to provide a safe and nonhazardous work environment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) is responsible for ensuring safety at work for all employees. As such, OSHA has the ability to conduct an inspection of any workplace. Additionally, OSHA has the power to enforce its standards, which means they can fine businesses that do not meet their standards. 

What Is the Standard of Care for Dangerous Structures?

State laws vary on premise liability laws. However, property owners are generally responsible for keeping their property safe. Further, the standard of care owed to a visitor depends on the type of visitor. The highest duty of care is owed to an invitee, or customers or patrons who have been invited onto the property by the owner. Second is licensees, who are social guests of the property owner who have entered the property, or remain on the property, for purposes other than business (a friend of the owner would be an example).

Lastly is trespassers. Although the definition of a trespasser varies by state, this term generally refers to people who have entered or remained on the premises without the consent of the property owner.

In order to prove that a property owner was negligent, the plaintiff will generally need to prove the following elements of proof:

  • There was an existing dangerous condition on the owner's property;
  • The property owner knew of the dangerous condition;
  • The property owner failed to remedy the situation and remove or repair the dangerous condition; and
  • That the victim sustained an injury due to the property owner's breach of their duty of care to the invitee, licensee, or trespasser.

In order to avoid liability, property owners will need to take reasonable care in keeping their property safe by warning visitors of dangerous conditions. Additionally, they must remedy these conditions as quickly as possible. A duty of care is generally owed to another person in any situation in which they may be injured due to another's actions, or inaction. Breaching this duty occurs when a person, such as the property owner, does not act as reasonably or prudent as another person would under the same circumstances.

As such, it must be proven that the property owner's negligence was the “actual and proximate” cause of the injuries being claimed (this requirement is also referred to as causation). Otherwise, the property owner may be free of liability. Once the other elements have successfully been proven, the plaintiff must then prove that there was some quantifiable loss or damage as a result of the property owner's negligence.

Are There Any Limitations on Recovery for Slip and Fall, or Premises Liability Injuries?

There are limitations on recovering damages for certain personal injuries, such as slip and fall or other premises liability injuries. One important limitation on premises liability injuries is the civil statute of limitations. Statute of limitations refers to the amount of time that a person injured has to bring a lawsuit against the defendant. The statute of limitations on reporting these injuries varies from state to state. As such, the sooner the victim can file a claim, the more likely they will be able to recover damages at all.

When determining a damages award, the court will typically consider the respective fault of each party involved in the incident. If a judge determines that that the injured party is somehow at fault for their injuries, they may reduce the amount of damages awarded. Alternatively, the judge may deny a damages award altogether. This is typically due to the plaintiff's (victim's) contributory negligence. If a judge determines that the victim is entitled to damages, these could include:

  • Pain and suffering, if the victim can prove long term effects;
  • Future and present medical bills, such as hospital stays and doctor visits; or
  • Lost income due to missing work because of the injuries sustained by the victim.

Am I Liable If Someone is Injured on My Property?

If a guest, customer, or trespasser is injured while on your property, they may be able to bring a personal injury lawsuit against you. Whether you will actually be held liable depends on how the person was injured, and what their status was on your property. An example of this would be how a property owner would likely be less liable for a trespasser's injuries than a guest's injuries.

Generally speaking, the law requires landowners to maintain their property in the same way that another reasonable person would. If the landowner fails to do so, or breaches their duty of care to those entering their property, they may be liable for negligence.

As previously mentioned, a property owner's duty of care premises liability laws under  will vary according to the status of the person injured while on their property. Liability for injury on private property will usually be higher for those who were invited on to the property, than for those who were trespassing and therefore uninvited.

Can My Social Guests Sue Me?

Residential property owners have a legal obligation to provide reasonable care, and land and home maintenance, for anyone who is invited to or visits the premises. The purpose of this is to ensure that the area is safe from dangerous conditions. This type of responsibility is known as premises liability; premises liability laws refer to the rules which govern residential homeowners' liability for personal injury.

However, as previously mentioned, the exact duty of care depends on how the person is entering the property. There are generally three categories for duty of care, which include:

  • An invitee, who is a person invited onto the property for business purposes;
  • A licensee, or a person on the property for either social reasons or their own purposes; and
  • A trespasser, or an individual who has entered the property without permission.

Generally speaking, invited guests must be warned of any hidden dangers to be found on your property. However, you usually do not owe a duty to inspect your property for any such dangers. The level of care is lower for licensees than an invitee. If you are aware of any potential hazards, tell your guests. If you are aware of a hazard, and do not tell your guest, it could result in you being liable for injured social guests.

Can My Customers Sue Me?

This category of visitors usually enjoy the highest standard of care. An invitee is a person invited to the property for business purposes, or a customer. Property in this instance can include open businesses, such as stores, and public facilities such as libraries. Whether or not a visitor purchases your product or service, they are still entitled to this specific standard of care while visiting your property.

According to this standard, a property owner owes the duty to repair and fix known dangers. Additionally, they have an obligation to reasonably inspect for, discover, and fix unknown hazards in those areas of the property of where an invitee may have access to. An example of this would be how a store keeper owes a duty of reasonable care to their customers to be able to use the restroom on the premises.

Simply put, similar to a social guest, landowners must make customers aware of any hidden dangers such as uneven floors or slippery surfaces. However, in addition to that warning, landowners must inspect their property and make reasonable repairs to any dangerous conditions for their customers. Failure to do so could result in the business owner facing liability for injured customers at a place of business.

Can a Trespasser Sue Me?

What if someone trespasses on my property and gets hurt? Property owners do not owe a duty to protect trespassers who enter their property. However, property owners cannot willfully injure trespassers. If there are frequent trespassers on the property, and the property owner is aware of them, they may be held liable for the injuries sustained due to an unsafe condition on the property.

The following are some conditions that must be present for liability:

  • There is a dangerous condition which exists because the property owner created it, or maintained it;
  • The hazardous condition was likely to cause death or serious bodily harm; and
  • The landowner failed to exercise the duty of care to warn the trespassers of the condition and the risk present.

An example of sufficient warning would be a sign at the entry of the property. To summarize, landowners owe no duty to trespassers to repair any dangerous condition. Nor do landowners owe a duty to inspect the property for such dangers. For the undiscovered trespasser, the landowner only owes the duty of not intentionally trapping or harming the trespasser.

What About Child Trespassers?

The aforementioned guidelines change when applied to children trespassers. Child trespassers are the exception to the general duties regarding trespassers. There is a duty to inspect the premises for safety and repair any known dangerous conditions, and the landowner is to exercise reasonable care in eliminating or substantially reducing the risk to the trespassing child. This is covered by the attractive nuisance doctrine.

The attractive nuisance doctrine is what protects child trespassers from objects or features on a land that attract children to the land, and has dangers that are not expected due to the child's inability to appreciate the risk. Examples could include pools, abandoned vehicles, and trampolines. Whether the child is able to appreciate the risk is determined on a case by case basis in most jurisdictions. Additionally, the landowner must have been able to foresee this risk to a potential child trespasser if they are to be successfully sued.

A child trespasser's parents may be held liable for civil damages, especially in cases involving the child damaging the property.

Should I Consult a Lawyer for Help with Property Injury Issues?

If you are a landowner, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable personal injury lawyer to determine the duty of care you owe, if you have a hazardous feature on your property. Consulting with an experienced attorney could help you avoid future liability issues. If someone has been injured on your property, you should also consult a personal injury attorney. An experienced attorney can protect your rights and provide any available defenses in court. Call our office today at 212-994-7777 or complete the convenient online contact form to set up a consultation.