Georgia property owners generally have a duty to exercise reasonable care in the inspection and maintenance of their property to prevent harm to others. If a property owner fails to fulfill this duty, anyone injured on their property can bring a premises liability claim against them. Sometimes people that never stepped foot on a property can bring a similar claim if a property owner’s negligence caused them harm.
Importantly, property owners owe different duties to different types of people. Therefore, premises liability cases revolve around two key questions:
- What duty did the property owner owe to the particular plaintiff in question?
- Did the property owner do enough to prevent the harm that occurred in light of that duty?
Duties to those coming onto the property
Under Georgia premises liability law, the duty a landowner has to someone coming onto their property depends on whether that person is an invitee, licensee, or trespasser. Landowners owe the greatest duty to invitees, which are those persons that were invited onto the property for the benefit of the landowner. Invitees primarily include customers of a store or clients of a business. Licensees are those that are given permission to access property, but not necessarily for the benefit of the landowner. A social houseguest would be considered a licensee. Finally, trespassers are those that have no right to be on a property. Despite this, Georgia law still holds that landowners have some duty to trespassers.
The most common type of premises liability claims are those made by invitees against businesses. Businesses have a duty to patrons and clients to inspect and maintain premises to keep them safe. This duty includes keeping customers safe from hazards in a store that could cause slip-and-fall accidents, maintaining the structure of premises to prevent other types of accidents, and even taking reasonable steps to keep a business area safe from the foreseeable criminal activity of others. Homeowners may have similar duties if they invite guests over for business purposes.
If a person has permission to be on a property but isn’t considered to be an invitee, they will be considered a licensee. A property owner has a duty to warn licensees of obvious dangers, but unlike with invitees, there is no blanket duty to take steps to safeguard licensees from all potential hazards.
Duties to trespassers are limited. Generally, as long as a landowner isn’t purposefully causing or inducing the harm, they will not be liable. There is one major exception to this rule—the attractive nuisance doctrine. Under this doctrine, property owners have a duty to safeguard trespassing children from any “attractive” hazards that may be on their property. A landowner can fulfill their duty either by ensuring that their property is free from hazards, or by taking steps to make sure their property is inaccessible to trespassing children. See Gregory v Johnson, 249 Ga. 151 (1982).
In Georgia, the most common application of this rule involves inadequately fenced-off swimming pools, although any hazard that could reasonably be expected to attract children onto a property could be considered an attractive nuisance (i.e., trampolines, swing-sets, equipment, trees, etc.) If your property has any products or conditions that children might foreseeably be attracted to, you should have your property fenced off from the public to avoid liability.
Duties to Those not on the Property
The duty of property owners extends to those off the property as well, such as neighbors and people just passing by, but only if the harm was foreseeable. For instance, if a landowner negligently permits an old tree to decay and fall over onto an adjacent property, they could be liable for any damage that is caused to a neighbor. Similarly, owners of buildings can be liable if parts of the building fall off due to poor maintenance and cause injury or property damage to someone walking down the adjacent sidewalk. Generally, any instance of foreseeable harm occurring from a property owner’s failure to maintain or inspect their property could create liability.
Whether a property owner is liable in these circumstances depends on whether the property owner acted reasonably to prevent the harm. In other words, the landowner must have been negligent in some way. For example, just because a tree falls over does not mean a landowner is liable for the damage—if the tree showed no outward signs of decay or blew over in a hurricane, the landowner isn’t liable.
If you would like more information about this issue, contact Williams Elleby at 833 – LEGALGA.