Premises liability - can I sue a homeowner for my injuries?
I was injured at someone else’s house. Can I sue?
Recently, a carpenter in Madison County, Missouri, filed a lawsuit against a homeowner after the plaintiff fell while performing work at the homeowner’s property.
In his complaint, the carpenter, Victor Betancourt, alleged that he fell from a structure built at the house because the homeowner, Michael Pedersen, failed to provide safe working conditions. Betancourt simultaneously filed a suit against the company that sold him the lumber for the project, which he claimed was faulty in quality.
In response to Betancourt’s complaint, Pedersen argued that he was not at fault, and that it was instead Betancourt’s own negligence that led to his injuries. Pedersen also contended that Betancourt had assumed the risk of injury when he agreed to perform work on the home.
So who is right? Should Pedersen, as the homeowner, be liable for Betancourt’s medical bills or other expenses, or should Betancourt be held responsible because he was somehow negligent?
Well, it depends.
For the purposes of property liability law, those who are injured on a given property are often identified as invitees, guests without payment, or trespassers. As might be expected, homeowners owe each group varying degrees of care in ensuring the safety of their home and surrounding property, and can therefore be held to different standards of liability should an injury occur.
Contractors like Betancourt are considered to be “invitees,” a category that includes shoppers at a grocery store, plumbers, landscapers, and others that are visiting a property for business purposes. Homeowners and property owners generally owe the highest duty of care to invitees, and have a legal duty in most U.S. states to not only address known hazards that these visitors may encounter, but to discover and correct unknown dangers.
This means that if Pedersen failed to correct a hazard that he could reasonably have been expected to discover and address before the work began, he could be liable for negligence in a personal injury suit. For example, Pedersen might be on the hook for the carpenter’s injuries and other expenses if there was termite damage that weakened the structure that Betancourt was standing on when he fell.
Pedersen may not be liable, however, if he warned Betancourt of the damage ahead of time. If Betancourt was hired specifically for the purpose of fixing the damaged structure, for example, Pedersen would probably not be at fault, as a professional carpenter should have expected the structure to be dangerous. Presumably, this is what the homeowner’s defense attorney is arguing by suggesting that Betancourt “assumed the risk” of working at the house.
This approach regarding business invitees is laid out in the second Restatement of Torts, a document that summarizes United States tort law, or U.S. common law related to civil (rather than criminal) wrongdoing. Delaware courts generally follow the Restatement’s treatment of liability in situations involving invitees, like the Missouri carpenter example.
The Supreme Court of Delaware differs from the highest courts of some other states, however, in the way that it interprets liability for individuals who visit a residence for non-business purposes – guests without payment and trespassers. Whereas in some states, guests without payment (think extended family members or guests at a party) are owed a greater degree of care than trespassers, for the purposes of Delaware personal injury suits, the two categories are basically indistinguishable.
According to 25 Del. C. §1501, otherwise known as the Guest Premises Statute, neither non-business invited guests nor trespassers have any cause of action against the owner of a residential property for injuries or damages “unless such accident was intentional on the part of the owner or occupier or was caused by willful or wanton disregard of the rights of others.”
In other words, a party guest is often unable to sue a homeowner in Delaware for injuries caused by negligence, like a loose front step, but the plaintiff would probably be able to recover damages if they were shot in the leg while the homeowner recklessly brandished a loaded shotgun, for example, because such an action shows a wanton disregard for others’ safety. This attitude is in contrast to courts in other states that would hold a homeowner liable to a non-business guest who injured themselves on the step, but not to a trespasser. (A Delaware homeowner would be liable to an exterminator or interior decorator who tripped, though, as there is a greater duty of care to a business invitee).
Unlike adult visitors, when children enter a property with or without permission they are owed a duty of care by Delaware homeowners per the attractive nuisance doctrine, a legal principle that covers situations like a child ending up in a neighbor’s pool. Since a pool is likely to attract children, and children are not legally expected to understand the risks of swimming unsupervised or the laws surrounding trespassing, homeowners have a duty to erect a fence, use a pool cover, or otherwise secure the safety of pools on their property, and can be held financially liable if a child is injured or killed using one.
As the attractive nuisance doctrine illustrates, there are exceptions to every rule. While U.S. tort law and the Guest Premises Statute offer clues as to when a homeowner is liable for injuries, there is some ambiguity in the definitions of invitees, guests without payment and trespassers, as well as “willful and wanton” and negligent behavior. Therefore, it is important for injured parties to talk to a lawyer to discuss whether or not they have a valid case – even if the homeowner claims that they are not liable.
If you were injured at a private property or business, you may be entitled to compensation for your injuries, lost wages, or punitive damages, even if you believe that you were a guest without payment or a trespasser. If your injury occurred while you were performing construction or other work on a property under the direction of a general contractor or another business, you may also have a valid workers’ compensation case. As the largest law firm that exclusively handles personal injury and workers’ comp cases in Delaware, we can work with you to determine what your best course of action is to get back on your feet following an injury.
Please contact us at 302-565-6100 for your free consultation with a member of Kimmel Carter’s award-winning team of attorneys. As always, our contingency fee arrangements provide you with reassurance that you will not be charged a cent for our services unless we win your case.