Are Homeowners Legally Responsible for Injuries to House Guests?
Most often, premises liability issues, which relate to the legal responsibility of property owners for injuries to visitors, arise in a business or commercial setting. However, private homeowners also have legal duties to guests. If you are injured while visiting a family member or friend over the summer or during the holidays, can you recover compensation? In legal terms, the issue is whether a homeowner legally responsible for injuries to social guests.
Homeowner Responsibilities to Social Guests
In premises liability law, visitors to a property are classified into three different groups for purposes of determining responsibility:
An invitee is someone who enters because he or she was expressly or impliedly invited by the property owner. Business visitors to commercial establishments are considered to be invitees. In contrast, trespassers are people who enter property without any permission or invitation from the owner.
A licensee is a person who has permission or consent of the homeowner to enter the premises for a purpose for the homeowner’s own benefit or convenience, rather than for a business reason. A social guest who visits someone’s home for a party or as a house guest for a few days falls into this category. The homeowner owes specific responsibilities to social guests as licensees.
Generally, the homeowner’s responsibility to a social guest as a licensee extends only to injuries caused by active negligence or willful or wanton conduct. When injury to a social guest involves activities or conduct of the homeowner, the duty is one of using reasonable care to avoid injury to the guest.
If injury to a social guest is caused by a condition on the property, the homeowner is responsible if the homeowner:
- Knows of the condition or has reason to know of it;
- Should recognize that it poses an unreasonable risk of harm; and
- Should be aware that the guest will not realize the danger.
Under these conditions, when the guest does not know of or have reason to know of the danger, the homeowner is liable for injuries if he or she does not use reasonable care to make the condition safe or warn the guest of the condition.
In other words, if you are invited to someone’s home for a few days — or even invited for dinner or a party — the host has the duty to warn you of any unsafe conditions that he or she is aware of (or should be aware of), if those dangers are likely not to be obvious to you. For example, if there is a section of flooring that is unsafe because it is slippery or rotting, your host has the responsibility to take precautions to prevent access to it, clearly mark the area with signs to warn of the danger, or specifically warn you about the unsafe condition.
If you were injured in a private home by a condition that meets the requirements for a non-obvious dangerous condition, you may be able to recover compensation from your host.
Contributory Negligence in Social Guest Cases
While a homeowner’s negligence in failing to warn a social guest of a hazardous condition can impose liability for an accident, the defense of contributory negligence can prevent an injured guest from recovering damages. Virginia applies the same rule of pure contributory negligence to premises liability cases that applies in car accident cases.
Under the pure contributory negligence rule, if an injured person is in any way responsible for his or her injuries, no recovery from the other person is allowed. In the case of a social guest, if the guest is injured and his or her own actions or conduct contributed in any way to the accident, the guest cannot recover compensation from the homeowner. The result is the same even if the guest was only 1% responsible for the accident and the homeowner was 99% responsible.
For example, if a house guest gets drunk, loses his or her balance due to the alcohol, and falls down the stairs, the homeowner likely will not be liable. However, questions of negligence and contributory negligence are difficult to determine in any accident. They are especially difficult to ascertain in premises liability cases.
Homeowner Liability for Alcohol-Related Accidents
Alcohol-related accidents — at a home or afterwards — deserve special attention. Some states have “social host liability” laws that permit a person injured in an alcohol-related accident to file a civil suit against a social host who provided the alcohol. Virginia is not one of those states.
In alcohol-related accident cases, Virginia courts have held that individuals are responsible for their own negligence, whether drunk or sober. Therefore, since the cause of the injury was drinking the alcohol — not furnishing it — the injured victim cannot hold the person who supplied the alcohol responsible. The rule applies whether the alcohol was furnished by a social host or a business.
Under Virginia law, if a social host serves alcohol to a person under 21 years of age, the host can be held criminally responsible. However, the host cannot be held civilly liable for injuries caused by the intoxicated minor — either to the minor or another person — even if the host was aware the minor was underage.
Who Pays for House Guest Injuries?
Being injured in someone's home presents an uncomfortable situation. Most likely, you know the homeowner. He or she may even be a family member. Because of that, you probably will be reluctant to make a claim for your injuries.
However, in most cases, the homeowner himself or herself will not be the one who pays for injuries to a social guest. Homeowner's insurance, which most private property owners have, usually includes liability coverage for accidents on the property. While even filing a claim with an insurance company can be awkward, remember that one of the reasons for the homeowner having insurance in the first place is to provide compensation for situations like yours.
Talk With a Virginia Beach Premises Liability Attorney
Experienced, respected Virginia Beach personal injury attorney Jeff Brooke knows how to recover damages for victims who suffer significant injuries on someone else’s property. If you were seriously injured on business or private property and a dangerous condition may have caused your accident, contact us by phone at (757) 552-6055 or by using our online contact form.
Jeff Brooke is a personal injury attorney devoted to helping individuals who have suffered serious and catastrophic injuries or lost a loved one as a result of someone else’s negligent and careless actions. The Jeff Brooke Team serves all of southeastern Virginia. The firm helps clients in the Greater Tidewater and Greater Hampton Roads areas, including in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Chesterfield. The Jeff Brooke Team also handles cases in northeastern North Carolina, including the Outer Banks.