For years, you dreamed about opening up a little shop on Main Street of your very own. And after hard work, planning, and some saved capital, you were able to make your dream a reality. Unfortunately, the reality of running a business is a little more complicated than the dream. There are so many considerations, challenges, and potential risks with running a business. One of these risks is the possibility that one of your customers is injured at your establishment. Our partner Patrick Caballero discusses ‘premises liability’ below and how Texas law handles it.
What is Premises Liability?
Premises liability refers to the area of the law in which the courts determine who is liable when someone is injured on another person’s property. If you own a business, Texas law imposes a duty on you to make your premises safe for people who are visiting. The nature of that duty depends on the specific status of the person on your property. The highest duty is owed to an invitee, or someone who has been invited to be on your property.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have invited that specific person directly or by name. If you keep your establishment open for a specific group of people – such as customers, in the shop example above – they are invitees. If you sell a product or service at a physical location and someone walks in to purchase that product or service, they’re an invitee.
Your Responsibility Under Liability Law
Premises owners have a legal duty to protect invitees from an unreasonable risk of harm, that the owner either knew or should have known about, by warning the invitees and taking steps to make that condition safe. If your store is open for business and there’s a large patch of ice on the front steps that isn’t clearly visible, you must take steps to warn customers and address the danger. If you don’t act, and your customer slips and falls, you’re potentially liable. Under Texas law, this is true whether you actually know about the ice and it’s even true if there’s a reasonable expectation that you should have known. So if local temperatures are below freezing and the area has experienced recent precipitation, do you have a duty as a shop owner to verify that your entrance is safe? Legally, probably so.
A slightly lower duty applies to licensees. A licensee is different from an invitee in that a licensee isn’t specifically intended to be in your establishment. If a salesperson visits on a sales call, they would generally be classified as a licensee. The duty owed to a licensee is nearly the same as the duty owed to an invitee, with one key exception. You only have a duty to warn a licensee of an unreasonable risk of harm based on something you are specifically aware of. If someone spills a soft drink in your shop – and doesn’t notify you or any other staff member – and a door-to-door salesperson slips on it, you’re probably not going to be held liable because you didn’t have actual awareness of that spill.
When Premises Liability (Probably) Doesn’t Apply
A third category of people that might find themselves inside your establishment is a trespasser. Under premises liability laws, a business owner owes almost no duty to a trespasser. If a burglar breaks into your shop and injures himself, you almost certainly won’t be liable unless you were grossly negligent in some way when it comes to the safety of your shop, thus creating a dangerous environment for entrants.
A special category to be aware of is contractors and their employees. One of the most common circumstances for someone becoming injured at a business is during repair or renovation work by a contractor. Contractors are usually classified as an invitee, which means that it is your responsibility to inform them and their crew of dangerous conditions that you are or should be aware of. However, if the contractor or their employees are injured in the performance of their work, the premises owner is protected from liability, so long as they were exercising control over the manner in which the contractor performed their work.
If you’re a business owner with questions on how to avoid premises liability for your visitors and customers – or are facing possible legal ramifications under premises liability law – Richards Rodriguez & Skeith’s Commercial Litigation team may be able to help you find answers. Contact us today for more information!