Property Owner’s Responsibility for Injuries on Their Premises

A property owner’s responsibility for injuries on their premises depends on the status of the person injured while on the property. Property owners and non-owner residents (renters) can be found responsible for accidents and injuries that occur on their property due to unsafe conditions. The general rule is that a person who occupies property with the intent to control it owes certain duties to persons who come on the property. This is known as “premises liability,” and means that property owners and residents can be liable for accidents and injuries that occur on their property.

The extent, if any, of the “duty” a property owner owes to persons on his property depends on the status of the injured person. In Washington, a person who is present on another individual’s property falls into one of three categories: an invitee, a licensee or a trespasser. Younce v. Ferguson, 106 Wn.2d 658 (1986).

Owner’s Responsibility for Injuries to Invitees

A property owner or non-owner resident owes the highest duty of care to invitees. Degel v. Majestic Mobile Manor, Inc., 129 Wn.2d 43 (1996). An invitee can be a “business visitor” or a “public invitee,” depending on the circumstance surrounding their entry onto the property. McKinnon v. Washington Federal Sav. & Loan Ass’n, 68 Wn.2d 644 (1966). With respect to either variety of invitee, a property owner must use reasonable care in discovering and protecting against dangerous conditions on the premises, even known or obvious dangers, if the property owner should anticipate harm to the invitee. Kinney v. Space Needle Corp., 121 Wn.App. 242 (2004).

Owner’s Responsibility for Injuries to Licensees

A licensee is a person who enters property with the owner’s express or implied permission. Winter v. Mackner, 68 Wn.2d 943 (1966). A social guest, for example, is considered a licensee. So is a door-to-door solicitor that approaches the front door of a house, at least in the absence of any signs posting otherwise. Singleton v. Jackson, 85 Wn.App. 835 (1997).  In Washington, a property owner owes a duty of care to a licensee or social guest if (1) there is a known dangerous condition on the property, and (2) the possessor can reasonably anticipate the licensee either will not discover the condition or will not realize the risks that the dangerous condition poses. The property owner must then (1) make the dangerous condition safe, or (2) warn the licensee or social guest of its existence. Memel v. Reimer, 85 Wn.2d 685 (1975).

But a property owner does not owe a licensee an affirmative duty to seek out hidden dangers on the property. Singleton v. Jackson, 85 Wn.App. 835 (1997). And property owners may not have a duty to protect licensees from “natural conditions” existing on the property, if the natural conditions present open and apparent dangers that would put a reasonable person on notice to be careful and proceed at his or her own risk. Tincani v. Inland Empire Zoological Soc., 124 Wn.2d 121 (1994).

Owner’s Responsibility for Injuries to Trespassers

Property owners are only in very limited circumstances responsible for injuries to trespassers. A trespasser is a person who enters the property of another without an invitation or permission. Winter v. Mackner, 68 Wn.2d 943, (1966). In general, the only duty owed by a property owner to a trespassers is to refrain from causing willful or wanton injury to them. Zuniga v. Pay Less Drug Stores, N.W., 82 Wn.App. 12 (1996).

However, a property owner owes a duty of reasonable care to small children they know to be on their property, even though the child may technically be a trespasser.  Laudermilk v. Carpenter, 78 Wn.2d 92 (1969). And under the attractive nuisance doctrine, a property owner creates an artificial condition on their premises that is attractive to and poses a danger to young children may be responsible for injuries to them from the condition, even though the child is trespassing on the property. Mathis v. Swanson, 68 Wn.2d 424 (1966).