If someone suffers an injury on your land as the result of hazardous conditions, he or she may choose to file a premises liability claim. In these claims, the visitors would need to not only prove the hazardous condition caused the injury, but also that the landowner owed the visitor a certain level of care. The degree of care varies in these claims and often comes down to the reason a person enters a property in the first place. Landowners do not owe trespassers the same amount of care as a friend invited over for dinner.
Legal Statuses of Property Visitors
Texas recognizes three categories of property visitors – invitees, licensees, and trespassers:
- Invitees include those who enter a property with the landowner’s knowledge and for both parties’ mutual benefit. A landowner owes the highest duty of care to invitees on the property. In cases involving invitees, the court may hold landowners liable for both known conditions and those which the landowners reasonably should have discovered.Examples of invitees include delivery persons, business patrons, and workers (employees and those an owner hired for a particular job). To minimize liability to invitees, landowners can routinely inspect properties for recognizable hazards and take steps to address the problem or warn invitees.
- Licensees enter the property for personal benefit. Solicitors, social guests, and recreational property visitors often fall under the category of licensees. The duty of care lowers slightly for this category of property visitor. A landowner must only act on dangerous conditions he or she knew about prior to the incident.To prove actual knowledge, a plaintiff might show the landowner caused the condition, made a poor attempt to fix the condition, or received previous warnings from others about the condition. To minimize liability to licensees, landowners should act to address or warn licensees of any known property hazards.
- Trespassers include all those who enter a property without a landowner’s permission or a reasonable and legal right to enter. A landowner owes a very limited duty of care to this category of visitor. Those who break into buildings after hours, ignore property line markers, or crash parties may fall into the category of trespassers.In these cases, a landowner must only avoid injuring the visitor intentionally or through gross negligence (extreme risk). For example, maintaining a high voltage electric fence without posting a warning might constitute gross negligence. Landowners who react to violence with self-defense or in defense of another and cause injury typically will not face liability.
- Child trespassers. A landowner may bear liability for children who suffer injury after wandering onto a property that displays an “attractive nuisance.” If a landowner knew about an artificial condition on the land that might attract children and failed to address the hazard, he or she may face liability for a child’s injuries. Attractive nuisances might include unfenced pools, billboards, and irrigation piping.
Navigating the Complexities of Landowner Responsibility
Some exceptions to the duty of care do exist. In most cases, landowners do not owe a duty of care arising from visible and naturally occurring hazards but do bear responsibility for warning or addressing hidden dangers such as hidden crevasses. Landowners are also not generally responsible for wild animal attacks. Since indigenous animals roam properties without landowner control, landowners need not warn visitors of the dangers of coyotes, insects, snakes, or other wild animals in the vicinity unless the landowner feeds, harbors, or otherwise adopts a duty of care over the animal.
Most landowners do not categorize every visitor who enters the property. Instead, farmers, shop owners, and others can focus on reasonable maintenance and building code compliance to minimize liability risks. If you routinely invite visitors to your property for recreation, work, or social events, discuss with a lawyer proactive premises liability strategies to reduce the likelihood of a personal injury claim. Taking steps that will minimize liability for all categories of visitors may provide the best protection against premises liability claims.