Ever wonder what your rights are if you get injured on someone else's property in Washington?
This article explores premises liability laws in Washington State, detailing the rights and responsibilities of those injured on someone else's property. It covers visitor classifications, the attractive nuisance doctrine, defenses to liability claims, and potential damages recoverable in such cases.
When you step onto someone else’s property, whether it’s a crowded grocery store, a public park, or your best friend’s apartment, you are, often without conscious thought, entrusting your safety to the property owner.
But what happens if that trust is broken and you get injured?
This is where premises liability law comes into play. Although all states have premises liability laws, the specific language of these laws—including the factors that determine when a property owner can be held liable for an injury—differs from state to state.In this article, we'll take a look at the premises liability laws in Washington.
Elements of a premises liability claim
To establish liability against the property owner, you must prove three things:
- The property owner had a duty to protect you from harm,
- The property owner breached their duty to protect you from harm, and
- You were injured as a direct result of the breach.
How do you know if a property owner has a duty to protect you from harm? And if a property owner does have a duty, do they have to protect you from all harm?
The specific obligations of a property owner depend on your classification, which is determined by the reason you were on the property.
Classifications and property owner responsibilities in Washington
Washington recognizes three different categories of visitors, each with varying levels of legal protection:
|An invitee is an individual who enters a property for the benefit of both themselves and the property owner, such as a customer in a store.
|An owner owes an invitee the highest degree of care, which includes the duty to locate and fix (or provide a warning about) any dangerous conditions.
|A licensee is an individual who enters a property for their own purposes but with the owner’s permission, such as a social guest.
|An owner owes a licensee a duty of ordinary care to warn or fix dangerous conditions which the owner has knowledge of or should have knowledge of.
|A trespasser is an individual who enters a property without any right and without the property owner’s permission.
|An owner only owes a trespasser a duty to refrain from willfully injuring the trespasser.
To better understand these classifications and duties, consider the following scenarios:
Emma Harper owns Greenwood Garden, where three individuals experience injuries under different circumstances:
Invitee: Sarah (the customer)
Sarah visits Greenwood Garden for a flower exhibition. While walking, she trips on an unstable stone step and sprains her ankle. As an invitee attending a public event, Emma owes Sarah the highest duty of care, including ensuring the safety of her steps. Sarah’s injury could make Emma liable.
Licensee: Jake (the friend)
Emma invites Jake, an old friend, to Greenwood Garden for a picnic. While setting up, Jake trips over a hose in a less-frequented part of the garden, resulting in an injury. As a licensee invited for a social visit, Jake is owed a duty of ordinary care by Emma, which involves warning him of or fixing known dangers. Emma's unawareness of the location of the hose complicates Jake's ability to hold her liable.
Trespasser: Leo (the intruder)
Leo sneaks into the garden at night to take photographs, climbs a tree, and falls, breaking his arm. Since Leo entered without permission, he is considered a trespasser. Emma’s only duty is to avoid intentional harm, which she has met. Emma will not be held liable for Leo’s injury.
The attractive nuisance doctrine in Washington
The attractive nuisance doctrine is an exception to the general rule that property owners don’t have to make dangerous conditions safe for trespassers.
Under Washington's attractive nuisance doctrine, a property owner may be held liable for injuries to a trespassing child if:
- A dangerous condition exists on the property;
- The dangerous condition is attractive or enticing to young children (such as a swimming pool);
- The danger is unlikely to be understood by children;
- The danger was left unguarded or exposed in an area where young children could reasonably be expected to be; and
- It was reasonably practicable and feasible for the property owner to prevent access by children.
Common defenses to premises liability lawsuits in Washington
Property owners in Washington have several defenses they can employ in premises liability cases:
- Comparative fault: Washington follows the pure comparative fault rule, which means a plaintiff’s damages are reduced by their percentage of fault.
- Assumption of risk: If the injured party was aware of the risks involved in their activities on the property and still proceeded, this may reduce or eliminate their right to compensation.
- Statute of limitations: In Washington, there is a time limit within which a premises liability claim must be filed, typically within three years from the date of the injury.
Damages available in a Washington premises liability case
If you’re injured on someone else’s property in Washington, you may be able to recover the following damages:
- Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by your accident (e.g., medical expenses, lost wages, property damage)
- Non-economic damages represent the non-monetary losses caused by your accident (e.g., pain and suffering, loss of consortium)
Most states allow punitive damages to be awarded for the purpose of punishing defendants for malicious, intentional, or reckless conduct. However, Washington, with few exceptions, does NOT allow plaintiffs in personal injury cases to recover punitive damages.
Washington premises liability FAQs
Can I sue if I slip on snow or ice?
In Washington, property owners have a general duty to remove snow and ice that can pose slip and fall hazards. However, the ability to sue and recover damages depends on several factors:
- Timeliness of response: Property owners are expected to act within a reasonable time after snowfall or ice formation. If the slip occurred during or immediately after a snowstorm, owners might successfully argue that they didn’t have sufficient time to clear the snow or ice.
- Reasonableness of efforts: If the property owner made a reasonable effort to clear snow and ice, but the slip occurred anyway, the property owner may not be liable. The court will consider whether the owner acted as a reasonably prudent person under similar circumstances.
- Location of the accident: Public sidewalks adjacent to private property may have different rules. Some municipalities require property owners to clear adjacent sidewalks, while others do not.
Can I sue if I’m assaulted on someone’s property?
The potential to sue a property owner in Washington for an assault on their premises largely depends on whether the danger was foreseeable and if the owner took reasonable precautions to mitigate such risks. For instance, if the assault took place in an area known for high crime, and the owner neglected to implement safety measures like adequate lighting, they could be found liable. Conversely, if the assault happened in an area with no history of such incidents, the property owner might not be held responsible.
What if the dangerous condition was caused by an independent contractor working on someone’s property?
In Washington, the liability of property owners for injuries caused by conditions created by an independent contractor depends on several factors:
- Control over the work: If the property owner retains a degree of control over the manner in which the work is done, they might be held liable for any dangerous conditions created by the contractor's work.
- Knowledge of the hazard: If the property owner knew or should have known about the hazardous condition and failed to correct it or warn others, they could be held liable.
- Contractor's negligence: If the independent contractor negligently created a hazardous condition, the contractor might also be liable. Property owners are generally expected to hire competent contractors and might be responsible if they fail to do so.
Determining liability in premises liability cases can be complicated. If you were injured on someone else’s property, consider reaching out to a Washington personal injury attorney. Most initial consultations are free.
A personal injury lawyer helps individuals who have sustained injuries in accidents to recover financial compensation. These funds are often needed to pay for medical treatment, make up for lost wages and provide compensation for injuries suffered. Sometimes a case that seems simple at first may become more complicated. In these cases, consider hiring an experienced personal injury lawyer. Read more