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An Overview of Texas Premises Liability Law

When someone is hurt or killed on the property of another, the victim can file a claim against the property owner. This is accomplished through an area of injury law known as “premises liability” law, which is really just a fancy way of saying “property owner negligence” law. But how exactly does this area of the law work? Is a property owner always at fault for injuries that happen on their property? Does this area of the law apply just to homeowners or to private businesses as well?

In this article, we are going to explain the ins and outs of premises liability law in full detail, including:

  • The responsibilities of property owners
  • What makes them liable
  • What you can sue for
  • Strategies to win your case

The Basics

First and foremost, a premises liability case is a personal injury or wrongful death case filed against someone that owns or controls the property where you were injured, filed on the basis that you were hurt due to a hazard on the property. The hazardous condition of the property hurt you, creating the basis of your injury claim, and you can sue accordingly.

What a premises liability case is NOT is a lawsuit against a property owner just because you were injured on their property. An injury coincidentally happening at someone’s house or place of business is not, in the eyes of the law, the same as the injury happening because of a condition of the property.

Additional details:

  • Premises liability cases cover situations such as:
    • Slip, trips, and falls
    • Injuries caused by virtually anything you can fall into or that can fall onto you
    • Dangerous animal attacks
    • Injuries caused by construction defects
    • Injuries caused by dangerous activities or unchecked criminal activity
  • Texas law allows you to hold property owners financially liable for injuries, provided you meet the criteria explained in subsequent paragraphs. You are allowed to sue for:
    • Compensation for injuries
      • Lost wages
      • Medical bills
      • Pain and suffering
      • etc.
    • Compensation for losing a loved one
      • Mental anguish
      • Funeral expenses
      • Loss of household income
  • Texas law gives you two years in which to file suit against a property owner who is responsible for your injuries. This two year period is called a “statute of limitations.” The two year period is extended for minor children

The Details

There are a few other elements than just “you suffered an injury on someone’s property” that must be present in order for your case to work.

You can only sue someone if:

  1. They had some degree of control over the premises, because they:
    • Own the property
    • Manage the property
    • Occupy or rent the property
    • Are obligated to be responsible for the property under contract with the property’s owner
  2. The hazard was in the form of:
    • A dangerous condition on the property, such as a premises defect
    • A negligent activity that occurred on the property
  3. They owed you a duty not to harm you in the particular way that you were injured.

Now, you may be thinking, “Hang on a second. How does that last part make sense?” The way it reads, it sounds like that they’re only liable if they hurt you in a particular fashion and not for all harm inflicted. As a matter of fact, that is how it works. You see, it all depends on the duty they owe you, so if the harm they inflict is caused by a violation of said duty, then you have a case. But if they never owed you a duty not to harm you in that particular manner, you have no case.

Let’s talk about that word “duty” a bit more…

When you’re out in public, all persons have a legal responsibility to everyone around them to not inflict harm on their fellow man due to carelessness. This responsibility is called the “duty to act as a reasonably prudent person would under the same circumstances,” otherwise simply known as the “reasonable person duty of care.” When you drive your car, walk your dog, hold a baby, or handle a firearm, you are required by law to uphold this duty by acting as a reasonable person would under the circumstances. Again, this is a duty that is imposed on every man, woman, and child.

You’ve probably heard the term “negligence” before. Well, the word negligence is just legalese for any conduct that violates the reasonable person standard. Any activity that hurts someone, that also happens to be an activity that a reasonably prudent person would not engage in, is considered to be negligent conduct. Or to turn it around, all negligent conduct violates the reasonable person standard.

In addition to the reasonable person duty of care that we all owe just for being in public, taking on new responsibilities often adds another duty to your list of responsibilities. For instance, if you become a bus driver, you are now responsible for exercising a fairly high degree of care as you transport your passengers. Likewise, dentists assume an abnormally high duty of care when they get their medical license. Generally speaking, the riskier the activity you choose to engage in, the higher and more burdensome your duty of care will be, and owning property is no different.

When someone owns, occupies, or otherwise controls a premises, they assume the duty to ensure that visitors to their property are kept free from most types of harm. However, the part that makes premises liability law both fascinating (and more complex) is that property owners owe DIFFERENT duties to different types of visitors.

While this concept seems somewhat foreign at first blush, it actually makes good sense since people visit properties for different reasons. Some visitors go to a property to engage in business that benefits the property owner, while other people who were never invited in the first place show up to try to convince the homeowner to switch religions. Should both of those people be owed the same duty of care, that is, should the property owner have to go to the same lengths to protect an uninvited visitor as they would a customer? The law says, “No.”

As premises liability cases have made their way into courtrooms across Texas over the years, what has emerged is an understanding that the reason someone goes to a property is what determines their status as a visitor, and their status as a visitor is what determines the duty that is owed to them. As such, the law has recognized that there are three distinct classes of visitors, and each is owed a slightly different duty of care.

The classes of visitors are:

  • Invitee – Someone who goes to a property for mutual benefit of the property owner and the visitor
  • Licensee – Someone who visits the property for their own benefit
  • Trespasser – Someone who visits the property without permission

Let’s talk about that in greater detail…

The duty a property owner owes you is based on why you went to the property

As we mentioned, the reason you went to the property is what determines what class of visitor you are, and how you are classified will determine the level of duty that the property owner has to give you. Here are the details:

  1. The highest level of duty is owed to invitees. When a property owner induces visitors onto their property in order to benefit the property owner, or for the mutual benefit of both parties, the visitor is called an “invitee.”
    • Duty owed:
      • Duty to inspect
        • A property owner owes an invitee the duty to proactively seek out potential harm
      • Duty to warn of or eliminate the hazard
        • Provided they had actual knowledge or or constructive knowledge of the hazard
      • Duty to refrain from gross negligence
      • Duty to refrain from willfully hurting the invitee
      • Duty to protect invitee from the criminal act of a third party, but only if the criminal act was foreseeable based on repeated past occurrences
    • Practical application:
      • Though not exclusive to businesses, premises liability cases involving invitees usually center on a customer being injured at a business. The idea at work is that businesses must maintain a safe environment for their customers. They must search out problems and have them fixed rather than wait for someone to tell them that there is a problem. Again, though, invitee status and the duty property owners owe to invitees are exclusive to customers of a business.
    • Situations where a visitor is considered to be an invitee include:
      • When a customer goes to a store, bank, mall, movie theatre, hotel, etc.
      • When a child accompanies a parent to a store, bank…, etc.
      • When a salesperson is invited into a private residence
      • When someone goes to church
      • When a postal worker, meter reader, cable repair man goes onto someone’s property
      • When a police officer or fireman enter a property for reasons unrelated to an emergency (to serve a warrant, inspect smoke detectors, etc.)
      • When a friend or relative visits a residence to help the property owner do yard work, have a garage sale, make home improvements, etc.
      • A tenant of a leased property (under certain circumstances)
      • The guest of a tenant (under certain circumstances)
    • Examples of the law in action:
      • Apartment complexes must have effective railing to keep small children from falling. Far too often, kids are able to squeeze through shoddy railing and fall to their death. Also, where railing becomes old or damaged, even grownups can fall from high places if they lean on a broken rail. Apartment complexes must actively seek out such dangers and fix them.
      • Hotels must secure their pool areas with a fence and childproof gate in order to keep children from accessing the pool without supervision. Further, the fence should meet or exceed the regulatorily-mandated height, and vertical posts or pickets are spaced at the appropriate width to prevent small kids from getting through.
      • You’ve probably seen wet floor signs at stores and restaurants. That is because warning an invitee satisfies the property owner’s duty. A wet floor condition that invitees are not warned about can open the property owner to significant liability.
      • If you go to a liquor store and are shot in a robbery, you may have a claim against the property owner, but only if the evidence shows that the property owner knew there was a problem (such as repeated past robberies) and they neglected to make the premises safer by taking steps to prevent subsequent robberies. This is a matter of degree, and it is up to a jury to decide if the robbery which caused your injury in this hypothetical was a random occurrence that the property owner could not have foreseen, or whether your injuries could have been prevented.
    • Conclusion:
      • Businesses and other property owners are held to a very high standard when it comes to keeping visitors to their property safe. They owe the aforementioned duties primarily because the visitor is there to benefit them, and the way the law sees it, if you essentially entice someone into your place of business (or church, etc.) to your benefit, you must go above and beyond to protect them.

    • An intermediate level of duty is owed to licensees. When a visitor enters a premises for the visitor’s own benefit (not for the mutual benefit of the visitor and the property owner), and they have permission to do so, they are a “licensee.”
      • Duty owed:
        • Duty to warn of or eliminate the hazard, but only if the hazard is not obvious to the visitor
        • Duty to refrain from gross negligence
        • Duty to refrain from willfully hurting the licensee
      • Practical application:
        • Though not exclusive to homeowners, most premises liability cases based on the injuries of a licensee visitor are filed by visitors who were hurt at someone’s home.
      • Situations where a visitor is considered to be a licensee:
        • Guests who visit the home of a friend or relative
        • Visitor to a business who is not there to benefit the business
          • Such as when a visitor steps into a store to get out of the rain
          • Someone taking a shortcut across a business’s parking lot
          • Loiterers
        • Firefighter or police officers who enter the premises in response to an emergency, yet are injured by something unrelated to the injury
        • Family members of a household
        • Off-duty employees at their workplace
      • Examples of the law in action:
        • A homeowner has a guest over to watch a football game. There’s a loose board on a step to the downstairs bathroom. The homeowner knows about the step, but doesn’t warn his guest to be careful. When the guest steps on the board and falls, he has a claim against the homeowner for injuries sustained.
        • A homeowner leaves a handgun out in his living room. Some neighbors come over with their 8 year-old child, and the child hurts himself with the gun. Under these circumstances, the homeowner knew the gun was there, that a child could access it, and should have either safely stored the gun or warned the parents.
        • A cash register salesman goes to a local hardware store to attempt to sell them a new cash register. As he is walking into the store, he notices an unpainted curb by the door and steps over it. The hardware store owner says he’s not interested and the salesman leaves. On his way out he trips over the same curb he stepped over earlier. Now, the hardware store owner does have the duty to warn certain visitors about the curb (usually just by painting it a bright color), but this duty is not owed to the salesman under these circumstances. First of all, the salesman is there his own benefit, not the benefit of the store. Had the store’s owner decided to buy his product, then the salesman is there for the mutual benefit of himself and the property owner, but since they were not interested, it can easily be said that the salesman was there only for his own purposes. Second, he saw the curb when he entered the store. Property owners must only warn invitees about conditions that the invitee doesn’t know about, but since the salesman saw the curb the first time, he had actual knowledge of it. If the property owner can prove that the salesman knew about the curb (which could easily be illustrated by surveillance footage), then the salesman would lose his case. Property owners must only warn licensees about what they don’t already know or about things that are not apparent.
      • Conclusion:
        • Homeowners aren’t held to as high a standard because we don’t expect social guests to assume everything is perfectly safe in a private home. Further, courts are generally reluctant to interfere in social gatherings of adults. Also, it doesn’t seem fair to hold private homeowners and money-making enterprises to the same standard, for a variety of reasons. Lastly, this standard doesn’t only apply to homeowners. It can apply to businesses too, but only when the visitor is at the business for his own purposes, not for the benefit of the business.
      • Read more:
    • The lowest level of duty is owed to trespassers. Generally speaking, the law does not require property owners to do much at all to keep their place safe in the event that someone comes onto their premises without permission. Indeed, it would be patently absurd to require property owners to seek out problems just in case someone breaks the law and gains access to their property. Nonetheless, in a few narrow instances, property owners can be liable for injuries sustained by trespassers.
      • Duty owed:
        • Duty to refrain from gross negligence
        • Duty to keep child trespassers from entering the property if the property contains an “attractive nuisance.” Read more about attractive nuisance.
      • Practical application:
        • Anytime someone enters a premises without permission, the property owner owes them hardly any duty at all other than the duty to not inflict harm upon them by way of grossly negligent behavior. As such, there are rarely circumstances where an adult trespasser has a case against a property owner for an injury sustained on the property. The only time, in practical terms, that there can be a case is when a trespasser is hurt by booby traps or when they unknowingly trespass and the property owner gets carried away with defending themselves from a perceived but artificial threat. Child trespassers, on the other hand, are treated as invitees if they venture onto the property because of an attractive nuisance, but only when the trespass is foreseeable to the property owner and they failed to take reasonable steps to prevent such trespassers from entering the property.
      • Situations where a visitor is considers to be a trespasser:
        • Any invitee or licensee who wanders into an area they were not given permission to access, including employees who enters into a part of his employer’s premises he wasn’t given permission to access, or house guests who enter a room they were not given permission to enter, such as a bedroom
        • Child who enters a property without permission and doesn’t qualify for special permission under the attractive nuisance doctrine
        • A friend or relative of an employee who enters the employer’s premises
        • A tenant who subleases an apartment or house, etc. without knowledge or permission of the owner
      • Examples of “special trespassers” who get special treatment:
        • Children, are treated as licensees when they are drawn onto a property because of an attractive nuisance
        • Repeat trespassers who the property owner has implicitly allowed on the property by tolerating their past occurrences of trespass are treated as licensees
        • Trespassers who enter a property due to an emergency are treated as licensees
      • Examples of the law in action:
        • A backyard pool is not fenced in. A small neighbor child wanders onto the property, falls into the pool, and drowns. His parents would have a claim against the homeowner because such an event was foreseeable.
        • A landowner knows that hunters sometimes wander onto his property. He hides bear traps to inflict serious personal injury on the hunters. The law, on balance, would likely side with the hunters.
        • A young man is driving his car and loses traction on ice, causing his car to crash through a fence and onto someone’s property. If the property owner comes out of their house and shoots the young man, that is either a willful injury or an injury that was inflicted by way of gross negligence, depending upon the circumstances.
        • A thief breaks into a store and cuts himself on some glass. The property owner will not be held liable.
      • Conclusion:
        • Everyone has heard the myth about the burglar that hurt himself breaking into a residence, only to turn around and sue the homeowner and win. It’s just that, a myth. That case would get thrown out of a Texas court so fast the judge would tear his rotator cuff. In order for a trespasser to have a case against a property owner, the property owner would really need to overreact. In Texas, as you likely know, you are allowed to use deadly force to defend yourself if you feel reasonably threatened or in defense of another. That is not tantamount to a license to kill.
      • Read more:

      The Special Issue of Homeowners’ Insurance:

      Typically, the people who own property do not have sufficient resources to cover the serious losses many victims of unsafe premises suffer. This is especially true of private homes. This problem is made worse by Texas’s “Homestead Laws” that reserve much of people’s personal property from ever being sold off as a result of a lawsuit. In blunt terms, this means that if you get a nice jury verdict against the homeowner, you cannot come take his house. Thankfully, homeowners insurance exists to pay claimants for just these damages. The typical scenarios where homeowners insurance kicks in are often:

      • Slip-and-fall accidents
      • Pool accidents
      • Alcohol-related injuries for minors
      • Child and sexual abuse
      • Dog Bites
      • Weapon-related accidents

      Damages & Compensation

      The crux in a lawsuit for a lot of people is the compensation part, which is what we’ll talk about now. In general, these are the types of damages (losses suffered in an accident) that are eligible for compensation under Texas law.

      For accidents resulting in injury:

      • Medical bills
      • Lost wages
      • Pain and suffering
      • Physical impairment
      • Disfigurement

      For accidents resulting in death:

      • Pain and mental anguish from losing a loved one
      • Lost household income provided by the loved one
      • Funeral expenses
      • Medical bills

      However, the entire premise of a lawsuit is that someone acted negligently and must therefore be legally required to compensate you. If everyone just paid what they owed without putting up a fight, we’d have no use for half of our court system, but that’s not the case. Filing suit and petitioning the court to force the defendant property owner to pay for your damages is a necessary process to being compensated.

      Conclusion

      We hope that by providing this information, you now have a good understanding of what your rights are when you’re on someone else’s property – be it a business’ or a private owner’s. A lot of people have misconceptions about what kind of rights they’re owed and there’s no shortage of attorneys who will fill your ears with “ummm…” and “I don’t know…” before leaving you even more confused.

      We’re here to help and we always think the best strategy with this kind of thing is to explain everything to our clients and make sure they understand what’s going on. If you need more information or have questions that need answers, we’d be glad to talk to you.

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Call us anytime toll Free 1-855-326-0000