Strategies for Reducing Your Risk of a Premises Liability SuitJanuary 31, 2024 | - News & Insights
Claims based on injuries that guests suffer while on someone else’s property are among the most common types of personal injury lawsuits. While these claims are often conceived of as “slip and fall” cases, the true scope of premises liability law is much broader, encompassing virtually every possible scenario in which a visitor could become injured. These kinds of lawsuits can cost businesses and private property owners alike significant sums in damages. While there are a variety of defenses that our North Carolina personal injury defense attorneys can mount on behalf of property owners who face premises liability claims, the best strategy to minimize liability is to avoid it in the first place.
Your Duty of Care to Visitors as a Landowner
Premises liability suits are based on negligence theories, in which the visitor-plaintiff argues that the property owner-defendant fell short of their duty of care to the plaintiff and that that breach caused the plaintiff’s injury. In North Carolina, property owners owe lawful visitors a reasonable standard of care in the maintenance of their property. This means that the property owner must protect visitors from dangerous conditions they know about or, in the exercise of ordinary care, should know about. If the dangerous condition cannot be corrected, the property owner must instead warn visitors of the existence of the condition.
A property owner’s duty to exercise reasonable care does not require the property owner to:
- Warn visitors of dangers the property owner does not know about or, in the exercise of reasonable care, could not have discovered by reasonable inspection
- Undergo unwarranted burdens in the maintenance of the property or in seeking out concealed dangers
- Warn visitors about dangerous conditions that are open and obvious
- Take precautions against unusual or out-of-the-ordinary use of the property by visitors
- Protect visitors from the criminal acts of third parties (in most cases; more on inadequate security below)
The above duty applies only to lawful visitors. To unlawful visitors (i.e., trespassers), property owners merely owe the duty to refrain from willfully and wantonly causing harm. Of course, disputes frequently arise over whether a property entrant was a lawful visitor or a trespasser. If a trespasser was injured on your property and is claiming to have been a lawful visitor, a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney may be able to help.
How to Avoid Premises Liability Claims
Property owners can avoid premises liability claims by familiarizing themselves with the conditions that frequently lead to lawsuits and taking preemptive corrective action.
Slips and Falls
Slip and fall lawsuits are particularly common in the premises liability context, especially against businesses and other places of public accommodation. Avoiding slip-and-fall liability is fairly straightforward in some instances — for example, in the winter, keep sidewalks, patios, and parking lots free of ice and snow to the greatest extent possible. In other cases, it is not so simple. For example, think of a situation where a water fountain springs a sudden leak and creates a pool of water on the floor that a customer slips and falls on. Should the property owner be liable for not immediately discovering the leak and taking the appropriate measures? Generally, where a dangerous condition caused by an outside force rather than the property owner (e.g., a surprise pool of water) is responsible for the injury, the property owner will be liable if the dangerous condition existed long enough for the owner to have discovered it through reasonable inspection or supervision and failed to correct it or give adequate warning.
Dog bites and other attacks can cause severe injuries, particularly for children. North Carolina dog bite law follows the “one bite” rule, which generally means that, in most cases, dog owners are not liable for a dog’s first bite unless they had prior knowledge that the dog was dangerous or prone to aggression. If the dog bites someone again after the first bite, however, the owner can be held liable. Furthermore, dog owners may be strictly liable (i.e., liable regardless of fault or negligence) for bites inflicted while their dogs were running loose at night. To reduce your risk of a dog bite lawsuit, keep your dog inside your house, in a locked pen or yard, or on a leash at all times. If your dog is prone to aggression or has bitten someone in the past, be sure to post warning signs around your property and verbally warn any visitors of the danger. Readers should also note that dog bites may also be actionable under municipal law.
We noted above the general rule that property owners are not liable for injuries caused by the criminal acts of third parties. However, there are exceptions to this rule. In cases where the conduct of a third party is foreseeable, and the property owner fails to take corrective action, they may be liable for the criminal acts of third parties. This could occur, for example, when a business owner was aware of a string of armed robberies in its parking lot but failed to install adequate lighting, security cameras, or patrols.
Again, we noted above the general rule that property owners are not liable for injuries caused to trespassers. But an exception to that rule arises when children are involved. Under the “attractive nuisance” doctrine, a property owner may be liable for injuries if there is a dangerous condition on his property that is likely to attract children who could not appreciate the risk posed by the condition. To guard against lawsuits based on attractive nuisance theories, install fences or barriers around dangerous conditions or items that are likely to attract trespassing children, such as swimming pools, trampolines, treehouses, construction sites, and frozen ponds, among others.
Manage Litigation Risk With Help From a North Carolina Personal Injury Defense Attorney
For more information about implementing strategies to reduce your risk of premises liability suits, please contact a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney at Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby by calling 252-638-6666 or using our online contact form.