Homeowner Liability – Are You Liable for a Guest’s Injury?
Owning a home is one of the things most Americans take part in, and seems to be an integral part of the “American Dream.” Owning real estate comes with many responsibilities, such as paying property taxes, making mortgage payments, and maintenance including mowing the grass, keeping the house clean, and pest control. Although these are typically the responsibilities that we think about coming with home ownership, rarely do we imagine getting sued for a guest on the property getting injured.
Premise Liability Claims
A premise liability claim can arise from conditions a homeowner may have never thought about or contemplated as dangerous. Some examples of dangerous conditions which have been hashed out by the courts entail: overhanging trees or branches on property falling and causing damage elsewhere, broken staircases, unstable or unsafe ladders, broken down sidewalks, pest infestation, defective chairs or seating arrangements, and in many premise liability cases faulty coverings and conditions created by construction on the home or property. Although there may be an injury due to a dangerous condition on your property, you are not automatically held responsible.
Historically in New York and many other jurisdictions, premise liability was based around the status of the person on the property. A homeowner owed a greater duty of care to those invited onto the property, and the duty lessens as you go down the ladder of the guests status and reasoning for entering onto the property until the bedrock status of trespasser appears. In cases of trespassers “the owner’s duty was limited to refraining from any wanton or willful act producing injury.” 3 New York Practice Guide: Negligence § 27.01 (2022). Lessening the standard for trespassers made sense because the homeowner had no reason to keep their property safe for those who they did not wish to be there in the first place, however this is no longer the correct standard for any of these statuses.
The current standard for homeowner liability is the same regardless of the person’s status and reason for being on the property. In order for a homeowner to be liable for a guest’s injury resulting from a dangerous condition it must be proven that the owner had either: (1) affirmatively created the condition, or (2) had actual or constructive notice of the condition prior to the injury. Both of these can be difficult to prove by an injured individual.
Affirmatively created conditions are easier to prove if present, but the bulk of personal injury cases deal with the second prong regarding the homeowner’s level of awareness regarding the condition. To give a homeowner constructive notice a defect must be visible, apparent, and existing for a sufficient length of time prior to the accident to permit the homeowner to discover and remedy it. When a defect is not apparent and would not be discovered with a reasonable inspection the court is unlikely to find that the homeowner had constructive notice.
Additional Potential Liability for Construction Projects
As the old saying goes, there are only two seasons in Western New York: winter and construction. As winter begins to thaw, the construction projects begin. Whether it be through a professional contractor or a DIY project, your liability as a homeowner may increase with home improvements.
Homeowner and premise liability dealing with construction slightly varies from typical homeowner liability claims. In some cases a homeowner may be responsible for the negligence of their contractor, however an exception within the New York Labor Laws state that as long as homeowners do not control or direct the work of the negligent contractor, that they cannot be held liable. This exception only applies to single and double family residences, and this “direct or control” language has been the focal point of personal injury litigation where homeowners claimed the exception. So, although homeowners may want to supervise and control improvement projects to ensure completion to their satisfaction, it may subject them to further liability. Thankfully, homeowner's insurance may cover personal injury claims brought by those injured by a dangerous condition at another's home.
If you or a loved one has sustained a serious injury due to a dangerous condition at another’s home, an experienced personal injury attorney can help. It is important to consult with a lawyer early to investigate your options, and preserve crucial evidence. For assistance with these matters, please contact us to learn more.
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About the author: Peter J. Gregory is a partner with MCCM Personal Injury Lawyers in Rochester NY. He is a trial lawyer with extensive experience resolving disputes in state and federal trial courts. As a personal injury lawyer, Gregory focuses on advising clients who have been injured or lost loved ones in accidents caused by the carelessness or recklessness of others. Please feel free to contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (585) 512-3506.
This publication is intended as an information source for clients, prospective clients, and colleagues and constitutes attorney advertising. The content should not be considered legal advice and readers should not act upon information in this publication without individualized professional counsel.
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