How to Defeat Premises Liability Claims in North CarolinaApril 28, 2023 | - News & Insights
Premises liability is a type of personal injury law that governs the relationships between property owners and visitors to their property. It encompasses nearly all kinds of cases in which a visitor to another’s property suffers some type of injury on the property, including slips and falls, dog bites, swimming pool incidents, exposure to dangerous substances, and even certain aspects of landlord-tenant law. Contrary to popular belief, property owners are not responsible for all accidents and injuries that occur on their property. If you are facing a premises liability claim, a North Carolina premises liability defense attorney can help you defeat it.
Premises Liability Law Generally
Laws governing the relationships between property owners and visitors vary from state to state. Many states divide visitors into three distinct groups: invitees (visitors who are on the property for a commercial purpose), licensees (visitors who are on the property for a non-commercial purpose), and trespassers (visitors who do not have permission to be on the property). In states that use that system, property owners owe different types of visitors different standards of care, with the highest being owed to invitees and the lowest being owed to trespassers.
North Carolina premises liability law no longer employs such distinctions, making its application a bit simpler than in other states. In North Carolina, property owners owe all lawful visitors the duty of reasonable care. Property owners are not required to insure their visitors against all injuries, nor must they undergo unwarranted burdens in maintaining their property.
In practical terms, this duty of care requires property owners to refrain from exposing visitors to dangerous conditions and to warn them of any dangers of which they are aware. This includes the duty to maintain their property and to remove dangerous conditions. If the dangerous condition cannot be removed, the property owner generally must warn visitors of its existence. Property owners owe trespassers a very low duty of care — only to refrain from causing willful or wanton injury.
The Plaintiff’s Burden in a Premises Liability Case
To prevail on a premises liability claim, the plaintiff must show that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care in maintaining the premises in a reasonably safe manner. However, what constitutes “reasonable care” varies greatly depending on the circumstances. Factors courts consider when undertaking this inquiry include:
- The foreseeability or possibility of harm
- The purpose for which the entrant entered the premises
- The time, manner, and circumstances under which the entrant entered the premises
- The use to which the premises are put or are expected to be put
- The reasonableness of the inspection, repair, or warning
- The opportunity and ease of repair or correction or giving of the warning
- The burden on the land occupier and/or community in terms of inconvenience or cost in providing adequate protection.
In such fact-specific types of cases, you can maximize your chances of success with help from a North Carolina premises liability defense attorney.
Common Defenses to Premises Liability Claims
Given that each premises liability case is decided on a unique set of facts, there are several defenses available to property owners who are facing premises liability claims.
One of the strongest and most common defenses in premises liability cases is the trespass defense. Under North Carolina law, a property owner’s duty of reasonable care extends only to lawful entrants onto the property. That excludes trespassers. This defense may arise in cases where a lawful visitor becomes a trespasser, such as by remaining on the property without the owner’s knowledge or after being asked to leave. Property owners must merely refrain from causing willful and wanton injuries to trespassers, such as through the use of booby traps.
Property Not Controlled by Defendant
A property owner’s duty to exercise reasonable care in maintaining his or her property necessarily depends upon the property owner having control of the property. This defense could arise, for example, when a customer slips and falls in a retail establishment in a rented space. The building owner could not be held liable for the customer’s injuries because he or she was not in control of the premises where the injury occurred.
Open and Obvious Hazard
While property owners generally must act to prevent harm to visitors on their property, visitors must also exercise a reasonable degree of care for their own safety. As such, property owners generally may not be held liable for injuries that occurred due to hazards that were open and obvious to the visitor. This could occur, for example, when a visitor falls down a staircase while attempting to take the steps two at a time.
No Knowledge of the Hazard
Property owners may be held liable only for hazards of which they were aware or should have been aware. In some cases, plaintiffs may introduce evidence that had the defendant exercised reasonable care in inspecting the premises, he or she would have known of the hazard. However, property owners are not required to undergo unwarranted burdens in this endeavor.
Unforeseeable Conduct by Third Party
Some premises liability claims revolve around the behavior of third parties rather than property owners themselves. These types of claims may arise in situations where a third party commits a criminal act against a visitor while on the property — for example, a customer who is mugged in a grocery store parking lot. In that situation, the property owner could be held liable only if there had been a pattern of muggings in the parking lot and it was foreseeable that a mugging would occur again. Property owners generally cannot be held liable for the unforeseeable acts of third parties.
Defeat a Premises Liability Claim With Help From a North Carolina Premises Liability Defense Attorney
Premises liability claims can expose property owners to significant legal risk. However, because these cases are so intensely fact-specific, defendants have a broad range of defenses available to them. If you are facing a premises liability claim, please contact a North Carolina premises liability defense attorney at Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby by calling 252-638-6666 or using our online contact form.