Question: Can a person recover damages for injuries sustained on someone else’s property?
Answer: An owner of property has a duty to protect members of the public from injury that may occur upon the property. The injured person may be able to recover money for those injuries if he or she can prove that the property owner failed to meet that duty. The hurdle plaintiffs face is that the nature and extent of the property owner’s duty will vary depending upon the facts of the situation and the jurisdiction in question.
Some states focus upon, solely, the status of the injured visitor to the property. These states divide the potential status into three separate categories: invitee, licensee, and trespasser. An invitee is someone who has been invited onto the land because that person will confer some advantage to the property owner, such as a store patron. An owner of property is required to exercise reasonable care for the safety of the invitee. A licensee is someone who enters upon the land for his or her own purpose, and is present at the consent, but not the invitation, of the owner. For example, a door-to-door salesman who enters the property and stays to chat with the owner about the product that he is selling is a licensee. The owner’s duty to a licensee is only to warn of hidden dangers. For example, if the owner knew the front step was rotten and did not warn the salesman, the salesman may be able to recover if he thereafter falls through the step and injures himself. Finally, a trespasser is an individual who enters onto the property without the knowledge or consent of the owner and who remains there without any right or permission. Trespassers have difficulty suing property owners because property owners’ duty towards trespassers is not to place traps and hazards on their property. In some cases, the owner must also warn trespassers of the hazards if they are unlikely to be discovered by the trespasser and could cause serious injury or death.
Other states focus upon the condition of the property and the activities of both the visitor and owner, rather than considering only the status of the visitor. In these states, a uniform standard that requires the owner of the property to exercise reasonable care to ensure the safety of invitees and licensees is generally applied. The plaintiff must prove that the duty of care has not been met through an examination of the circumstances surrounding the entry on the property, the use to which the property is put, the foreseeability of the plaintiff’s injury, and the reasonableness of placing a warning or repairing the condition. Obviously, whether reasonable care has been rendered depends greatly upon the particular circumstances.
The property owner’s duty of care toward children is greater than the duty owed to adults. Even if the children are trespassers or engage in dangerous behavior, the property owner must still take precautions to prevent foreseeable harm to children. The classic example of a property owner’s greater duty of care to children arises in the context of backyard swimming pools. Owners must fence, gate, and lock their pools in a manner that keeps children out and if they fail to do so, they will be found liable for injuries to children, even if the children were trespassers that were warned to stay off the property.