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Mar 20, 2024

Navigating Dangerous Conditions in Premises Liability Actions

By: Chad Nelson

Premises liability actions in Texas most often revolve around dangerous conditions on a defendant’s property. Property owners and occupiers have a legal duty to maintain their premises in a reasonably safe condition for visitors, customers, and tenants. Understanding the legal framework governing dangerous conditions is essential for property owners, tenants, and vendors, alike.

In this article, we provide an overview of Texas law concerning dangerous conditions in premises liability actions, including the duty of care owed by property owners/tenants/vendors, liability for injuries, and common defenses available to defendants.

A.  Duty of Care

In Texas, property owners owe a duty of care to individuals who enter their premises, which varies depending on the visitor’s classification:

1. Invitees: Property owners owe the highest duty of care to invitees, who are individuals invited onto the premises for the owner’s benefit or for a purpose related to the property’s business. Owners must regularly inspect the property, remedy known hazards, and warn invitees of any dangers that are not readily apparent.

2. Licensees: Owners also owe a duty of care to licensees, who enter the property with permission but for their own purposes. While the duty is slightly lower than that owed to invitees, owners must still make safe and warn licensees of known dangers that may not be obvious.

3. Trespassers: Property owners owe a limited duty of care to trespassers, primarily to refrain from willfully or wantonly injuring them. However, if the property owner is aware of frequent trespassing or if children are likely to trespass, the owner may have a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent harm.

B.  Liability for Injuries

To hold a property owner liable for injuries resulting from a dangerous condition, plaintiffs must establish the following elements:

1. Existence of a Dangerous Condition: Plaintiffs must prove that an unreasonably dangerous condition existed on the property.

2. Owner’s Knowledge or Constructive Knowledge: Plaintiffs must demonstrate that the property owner either knew (actual knowledge) or should have known (constructive knowledge) about the dangerous condition through reasonable inspection or other means.

3. Failure to Remedy or Warn: Plaintiffs must show that the property owner failed to take reasonable steps to remedy the dangerous condition or provide adequate warning to prevent harm.

4. Causation: Plaintiffs must show that the the owner’s failure to exercise reasonable care proximately caused the alleged injuries. 

C.  Common Defenses Available

Property owners and occupiers facing premises liability claims may assert various defenses to mitigate or avoid liability, including, but not limited to:

1. Open and Obvious Doctrine: Owners and occupiers may argue that the dangerous condition was open and obvious, and the plaintiff failed to exercise reasonable care to avoid it.

2. Comparative Fault: Owners and occupiers may allege that the plaintiff's own negligence contributed to cause their injuries, thereby reducing the owner’s liability completely or by a percentage.

3. Condition not Owned or Controlled: Owners and occupiers may be able to argue that the alleged dangerous condition is not owned or controlled by the owner or occupier. When there is a dispute as to who owns or controls a subject condition, further evaluation is necessary to determine whether a landlord, tenant, vendor, governmental entity, or other landowner is responsible for the accident in question. These situations can be quite complex, requiring a review of lease agreements, service and maintenance contracts, building permits, and city ordinances.

D.  Conclusion

Navigating dangerous conditions in premises liability actions requires a nuanced understanding of Texas law governing property owner duties, liability standards, and available defenses. By recognizing their obligations and potential legal exposure, property owners and occupiers can take proactive measures to mitigate risks and prioritize the safety of visitors.