What is premises liability, and what does it mean for your injury lawsuit?
A fall can result in broken bones, head trauma, or other serious injuries. And, while many falls are caused by medical conditions, vision problems, and normal human error (aka "clumsiness"), some are because of hazards like broken or uneven steps, rug edges, or an obstacle that causes someone to trip.
But, a hazard you encounter on someone else's property (which is really anywhere outside your own) isn't limited to falls. It could be an indoor accident, like being hit by a broken door in a public restroom, an outdoor hazard like a falling tree branch, an accident from poor lighting in a parking garage, or any other injury that's a result of a condition on the property.
The other side of premises liability law is understanding your obligations and liabilities as a homeowner or property owner if someone is injured on your property.
North Carolina's premises liability laws refer to a property owner or manager's responsibility to maintain safe conditions for visitors. That means anyone who is legally on the property — such as an invited guest, employee, customer, tenant, or person in a public area like a park. The law usually doesn't protect someone who's not legally permitted to be on a property, like a trespasser.
Elements of a North Carolina premises liability claim
In order to bring a successful premises liability claim, you'll need to prove that:
- The property owned owed you a duty of care (and that you were a lawful visitor to the property).
- There was a dangerous condition.
- The property owner knew or should've known about the dangerous condition and that it could potentially cause an injury.
- The property owner did not take reasonable action to correct or warn about the condition.
- You were injured because of the dangerous condition.
- Your injuries cost you money (medical bills, lost wages, or other recoverable damages).
What is "reasonable care"?
"Reasonable care" doesn't mean a property has to be in pristine condition. Rather, it means the owner must take reasonable steps to protect a visitor from harm.
For example, a store manager is expected to quickly clean up a spill that might make the floor slippery. A homeowner would be responsible for trimming low-hanging tree branches that could injure someone walking beneath them.
In both of these scenarios, there's the potential harm that the owner should reasonably know about and that they have a duty to correct.
If there's a hazard that can't be corrected, the owner has a duty to warn a visitor of the condition.
Here's an example:
The landowner is aware that a large tree that extends over an outdoor walkway has some dead branches near the top and that there's a risk that the branches could fall. The landowner might not be able to remove the branches easily or immediately, but they must post a sign or warning that a visitor should avoid walking in the area beneath the branches.
On the other hand, if a tree falls across a walkway in a way that's obvious to a visitor, the owner likely doesn't have a duty to warn because the visitor should already be aware of the danger on their own.
Factors that determine whether the owner used reasonable care
- Property location
- The likelihood that a person would visit the property
- The likelihood that an injury could occur
- The probability that an injury could be severe
- Whether the property owner knew or should have known about the condition that created the risk of injury
- The difficulty of protecting against the risk of injury
- The extent of the property owner's control over the condition that created the risk of injury
What about unlawful visitors (trespassers)?
If someone trespasses, the property owner doesn't have a duty to warn. Instead, they only must avoid willfully (purposely) harming the trespasser.
There are some exceptions to the law regarding an injury to trespassers. There are some cases where a plaintiff has "implied permission," which is a situation when they might not have needed explicit permission to enter a property. For example, a delivery person or mail carrier has implied permission to enter a property.
There's also the "attractive nuisance" doctrine, where the property owner is liable for a child's injury if there was a dangerous condition that was likely to interest or attract a child. For example, if you have a trampoline on your property that isn't surrounded by a fence or barrier, it could be considered an attractive nuisance if it's accessible to a child who might wander over to play without an invitation.
Who is liable for maintaining a property's safety?
In the eyes of the law, there are 3 main types of property:
- Property owned by a person (for example, a residence or business owned by a person)
- Property owned by a corporation (like an office building, retail store, or other commercial property)
- Public property (which is roads, sidewalks, or any other area of land that's maintained by a municipality or other government agency)
It's important to know who has actual control over the property where you were injured. If you were injured inside a restaurant that's within a shopping mall or plaza, chances are the property is owned by the mall operator but the responsibility of the restaurant manager. But it might depend on the nature of the injury.
For example, if the corner of a rug came loose and you tripped and fell as a result, that's likely the responsibility of the restaurant management. They're the ones that should've been aware of a dangerous condition and corrected it.
But if a portion of the ceiling crumbles and you're hit with falling debris, that might be the mall operator's negligence. These are issues for a lawyer to determine. You might not know who was responsible for your injury in a situation where there could be more than 1 negligent party.
Liability for injuries on public property
Public property — the street, sidewalks, parks, and other areas that are maintained by a municipality or other government agency — must be maintained by a specific agency. Even so, they're responsible only for maintaining an area where you're lawfully permitted to be.
Here's an example:
It was a beautiful day and Holly Hiker decided to go for a hike on her favorite trail at Falls Lake State Park, which isn't far from her home in Raleigh. She and her friend Fred headed out with all the necessary provisions — snacks, water, bug spray, sunscreen, and more. Holly and Fred are experienced hikers and very familiar with many of the local trails.
But Holly loves an adventure.
They'd been hiking for a while when Holly decided that she wanted to leave the trail and move closer to the edge of an embankment to get a better view of the reservoir. Fred pointed out to Holly that there were signs warning visitors to stay on the trail, and even one saying that going off-trail in that particular area could be dangerous. But Holly said she'd be careful and she really wanted to see something new.
Holly and Fred left the trail and headed into a woodsy area that wasn't maintained for hikers. She reached the edge of an embankment and was looking out at the view when the embankment began to give way beneath her, creating a landslide effect. Holly couldn't back up quickly enough and she slid down the embankment and into the reservoir, hitting her head and breaking several bones along the way.
Once recovered, Holly decides to sue the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation for her injuries. However, she would likely lose her case because she'd willingly ventured into an area that was specifically marked as unsafe. The state was not responsible for her injuries because she wasn't lawfully permitted to be there and she'd been warned but took the risk anyway.
The North Carolina Tort Claims Act
If your injury happens on property owned by a North Carolina state agency or municipality, you'd file a claim differently from how you'd pursue a lawsuit against a private person or company.
The North Carolina Tort Claims Act waives sovereign immunity, which is a function of law that normally protects governments from lawsuits. However, the Tort Claims Act allows the government to be sued if an agency, officer, or employee is responsible for your injury.
Common premises liability injuries
Premises liability actions can include (but aren't limited to):
- Lead poisoning
- Swimming pool accidents
- Dog bites
- Slip or trip and fall accidents
- Elevator accidents
- Falling objects
- Retail store injuries
- Exposure to toxic substances
- Inadequate security measures
What if you were returning to your car at night in a parking lot that had insufficient lighting and you were assaulted? Or what if you're walking into a bank in an area that has had a recent rash of crime and you're mugged because there are no security guards?
If you can show that a condition related to the property (lights, or other security features) were insufficient, you might have a premises liability claim for a resulting injury.
North Carolina contributory negligence law
North Carolina follows a pure contributory negligence system of law, which means a plaintiff can't recover damages if they are partially at fault.
Sometimes, accidents are the fault of 1 person but might have been prevented if another person had acted differently or been more cautious. If the court finds that a plaintiff was liable for any portion of the accident, they cannot recover any damages.
Defenses to a premises liability lawsuit
What if someone is injured on your property and you're now in the position of having to defend against a lawsuit?
A property owner or manager can avoid responsibility in a premises liability action if they can prove one of the following scenarios:
- That the dangerous condition was open and obvious (a condition is "open and obvious" if a reasonable person should have seen and avoided the condition).
- That misuse of property led to the plaintiff's injury.
- That the injured person was aware of the dangerous condition before they were hurt (for example, in the above example of Hiker Holly).
- That the injury was caused by a minor, trivial, or insignificant defect on the property (this is sometimes called the "trivial defect defense").
Will my homeowners insurance cover a premises liability lawsuit?
If you have property or casualty insurance, it covers damage to your property (like fire, flood, theft, etc.). If someone sues you for negligence, it might be covered under a liability insurance policy if you have one (you might also be covered under an umbrella policy).
Even if you weren't negligent but someone was injured, your liability insurance might include no-fault coverage for medical payments up to a certain amount.
Should you call a lawyer after a premises liability injury?
Probably. If your injury was very minor like a sprained ankle or a bruise that will heal on its own, and you don't have any medical costs, then you likely won't have a claim.
But if your injury was serious enough to warrant medical treatment, if you lost time from work, or if it resulted in pain and suffering, you should call a lawyer.
If you need a lawyer to assist with your premises liability claim, you can use the Enjuris North Carolina law firm directory to find the one who's best suited to your case.
- Legal Guide to North Carolina Premises Liability Laws
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