The Basics of Premises Liability
Premises liability is a legal doctrine that holds property owners responsible for injuries caused to people on their property. The origins of premises liability can be traced back to English common law, which distinguished between three different types of entrants onto a property: trespassers, licensees, and invitees.
 Trespassers are people who enter a property without permission. Property owners owe trespassers the lowest duty of care, which is to simply avoid intentionally harming them.
 Licensees are people who enter a property with permission but for their own benefit, such as social guests. Property owners owe licensees a duty to warn them of known dangers on the property.
 Invitees are people who enter a property with permission for the benefit of the property owner, such as customers or business guests. Property owners owe invitees the highest duty of care, which is to reasonably inspect the property for hazards and proactively seek to correct them.
A common misconception is that suffering an injury on a businesses property automatically subjects the business to liability. With the exception of trespassers, demonstrating liability requires proving that the property owner failed to address a foreseeable safety hazard. Falling down a flight of stairs may not give rise to liability if, for instance, the stairs were secured with handrails, properly maintained, and without defects. However, a staircase with variations in step height or poor lighting is more likely to trigger liability as the dangers presented by those conditions are foreseeable and preventable. Whether a business took enough safety precautions – or met the “standard of care” – may involve considering expert guidance, industry standards, or the expectations of the public.
In addition to the common law, premises liability is also governed by statutes in many states. These statutes vary from state to state, but they typically codify the common law rules of premises liability and provide additional protections for certain types of entrants, such as children. Premises liability law is important because it helps to ensure that property owners are held accountable for injuries that occur on their property. The legal distinctions between the three types of “entrants” helps courts strike a balance between affording relief for victims of negligence and shielding careful property owners from automatic liability. An experienced attorney can help you understand whether your injury can meet the critical threshold of liability.