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What is Premises Liability Law in North Carolina?

Premises liability is a legal theory of negligence when an injury was caused due to an unsafe or defective condition on an individual’s property. Premises liability varies in definitions and applications from state to state. There are a multitude of scenarios and circumstances that play a significant role in premises liability. There are a considerable number of variances that come into play, depending on whether or not the property is owned, leased, or occupied.

As with most personal injury claims premises liability is typically determined by proving negligence of a defendant. There can be many different legal nuances to these cases, and it is vital to have a grasp on the uniqueness of the law in each state and instance.

North Carolina formerly applied legal standards in premises liability cases depending on whether the injured party was a licensee, invitee or trespasser. A licensee is a person who is on the owner’s premises with the owner’s permission, but solely for their own purposes. An invitee is a person who enters the premises of an owner through express or implied invitation. Trespassers are classified as unlawful guests to the property. In 1998 the North Carolina Supreme court abolished the distinction between licensee and invitee based on the case Nelson v. Freeland.

In this case, Freeland, who was the defendant, requested that his friend Nelson who was the plaintiff pick him up at his house. Upon Nelson’s arrival at the premises, he tripped over a stick that had been left on the porch by Freeland, causing Nelson to sustain injuries. The injuries lead to Nelson filing a negligence suit against Freeland. The trial court granted Freeland’s motion for summary judgment. The case was appealed and reviewed by higher courts, establishing a new rule in North Carolina that now requires all landowners to take reasonable care, so visitors are not exposed to dangerous situations. The law also requires that lawful visitors are warned of any hidden dangers once they enter the property.

A myriad of situations can arise when premises liability comes into play. Landowners can be found liable if a lawful visitor sustains an animal bite on their property, their property is dangerous on has inadequate maintenance.  There can also be circumstances where a slip on an owner’s property or even a swimming pool injury sustained can lead to an owner’s liability. In all of these injury cases the status of the visitor, the condition of the property, and warnings given or not given play a substantial role in determining fault.

The complexities of determining fault in premises liability cases extend to differentiating between a property owner and a property occupier. Owner’s and occupiers of property can both be held liable in a premises liability case. The determining factor in who the responsible party is, is often which party was in control of the part of the property where the injury took place. Owners who lease out property can be held responsible for injuries even when the property is occupied. For instance, an owner has the responsibility to maintain all common areas such as the lobby of an apartment complex that services multiple tenants. An owner also is responsible for renting out property that is in safe, livable condition. An owner who rents out dangerous property without warning a tenant can be held liable for any injuries sustained. Additionally, the language of the lease between an owner and occupier can either absolve or put liability back onto the owner. A leased signed by a consenting reasonable adult stating that an owner is not responsible for dangerous conditions while the occupier is in control of the property means the occupier will be held liable for any injuries that result from the hazardous conditions. However, if a lease specifies that an owner must repair dangerous situations and the owner fails to do so, they may be held liable if injuries occur due to their failure to act.

Occupiers can be found liable for injuries that occur on the property even in the instance where they are renting. A legal occupier or renter of property is in control of certain portions of the property they are renting. When injuries occur on parts of the property that are controlled by the occupier, they will be held liable as opposed to the owner. For example, an occupier spills water in their kitchen. The occupier invites guests over, and they slip on the water without having been adequately warned, causing them to sustain injuries. The occupier can be held liable because the injuries resulted in a part of the property they were in control over.

Whether the injured party is pursuing a lawsuit against an owner or occupier, the plaintiff will have the burden of proof. The plaintiff will first have to prove the property was owned, occupied, or leased by the defendant. The injured party will also have to show that there was negligence on the part of the defendant. If it can be proved that a defendant was negligent, it must also be proved that the negligence of the defendant was a substantial factor in the harm sustained by the plaintiff.

Again proving that a defendant was negligent is markedly impacted by the status of the property visitor. The property owner owes invitees and licensees in North Carolina a duty of care. The duty of care means that a property owner must warn or fix any concealed dangers and keep their property reasonably safe. Trespassers who are injured on the property are owed no special duty of care. However, owners must refrain from willfully and wantonly harming the trespasser.

Injuries on premises can occur in all sorts of everyday circumstances. Liability will predominantly be determined by the status of the visitor and who was in control of the portion of the property where the injuries were sustained. Once the responsible party is determined, the plaintiff will have to prove negligence on the part of said party. If the individual who was in control of the property is found to be negligent, then the plaintiff may be entitled to compensation for their injuries.  If you or a loved one was injured because of another person’s negligence please contact us.  You will speak with a personal injury lawyer who can best answer your questions.  There is no fee for the initial consultation. 

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