“Trivial Hazards” & the Landowner’s Duty to Warn
Property owners* must maintain their property and (premises located thereon) in a reasonably safe condition. Today, we take a look at some of the elements of “reasonably safe” conditions and the nature of the duty land owners, controllers, and possessors have when it comes to maintaining property.
TRIVIAL HAZARDS DO NOT NORMALLY GIVE RISE TO LIABILITY
Premises liability does not apply, and land owners* are not liable, in the event of injuries which result from trivial or insignificant hazards or defects. The property owner has no affirmative duty to eliminate “trivial” defects on property or structures. Landowners concerned about whether a defect qualifies as “trivial” should obtain the opinion of an attorney or other licensed professional qualified to give an opinion on such matters. Do not attempt to evaluate triviality without professional assistance.
The lack of liability for trivial defects is sometimes referred to as the “trivial defect defense,” but this is actually a misnomer. Legally, a “defense” is a condition or set of facts which relieves a plaintiff of liability or “excuses” the plaintiff’s (otherwise wrongful) action. In the case of trivial defects, there is no duty to mitigate and therefore no liability for which a defense is required. Instead, the law views trivial defects as impacting the landowner’s duty–which is one of the four primary elements of a case for premises/negligence liability. If the defect qualifies as “trivial” for legal purposes, the landowner had no affirmative duty, so the plaintiff’s attempt to prove liability fails.
The question of triviality is an issue of law, meaning it is resolved by the judge, not the jury.
THE LAND OWNER’S DUTY APPLIES TO BOTH NATURAL AND MAN-MADE/ARTIFICIAL CONDITIONS
The “common law” distinguished a land owner’s duty to mitigate artificial or man-made hazards from the duty to mitigate naturally-occurring hazardous conditions. Current law eliminates that distinction. The owner or possessor of property has an equal duty to eliminate natural and man-made or artificially occurring hazards.
PEOPLE IN CONTROL OF PROPERTY HAVE A DUTY TO WARN OTHER PEOPLE OF HAZARDS ON THE PROPERTY
As the heading states, property owners (and remember, in these articles, that term may apply to people who possess or control property as well as “owners” in the traditional sense) have a duty to warn third parties about hazards which exist on the land or premises.
This duty applies not only to hazards “created” by the owner’s use, but also to hazards created by the actions of others. For example, if a utility company enters the land to bury power lines, and leaves an open trench while constructions is in progress, the property owner must ensure that the trench is properly fenced and marked to ensure that people entering the land are aware of the danger. Note that the owner’s duty is not impacted by the fact that the property owner has no legal right to fill the trench or interfere with the utility company’s work.
Sometimes, an “obvious hazard” creates a situation so obviously dangerous that the property owner has no additional duty to warn people entering onto the property. However, this is not always the case, and property owners are wise to err on the side of extra caution and extra warnings.
*Note: all references to “property owners” in this article also apply to “possessors” of property and people in control of property, because the legal duty attaches to persons who “own, possess, or control”–not simply to property owners alone.
People who own, rent, control, or possess real property–either land or rental premises–should maintain and repair the property as needed to mitigate risks to other residents, guests, invitees and others. Ignorance of the law is not a defense. Consult an attorney or property specialist to learn about your duties and obligations, and make sure you comply with your legal duties to keep your property safe and well maintained.
DISCLAIMER: This article is intended for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. Premises liability is a complex legal topic, and no single article can provide complete or comprehensive coverage or information about this or any other legal topic or issue. Your personal liability may differ, based on your individual facts and circumstances. If you believe you have a legal claim or issue, or wish to know more about your individual rights, consult an experienced attorney without delay.