Warnings to Property Owners
Florida landowners owe two distinct duties to individuals that enter their property: a duty to ensure that the premises are reasonably kept safe or maintained, as well as a duty to warn others of any unsafe conditions that are not open and obvious. In short, if a hazard that is not immediately recognizable exists on the property, Florida landowners must warn guests about its existence. Failing to do so could subject the property owner to liability under Florida premises law. The extent to which a property owner must go to satisfy the duty to warn as to the existence of any non-obvious hazardous conditions depends on the circumstances under which the injured person came onto the property.
In Florida, individuals entering a property typically fall into one of three categories: business invitees; licensees; and trespassers. While a business invitee is owed the highest standard of care by the landowner, Florida property owners still owe certain minimum obligations to trespassers.
Business invitees include any persons allowed onto the premises for business purposes. Broadly speaking, this definition ranges from retail store shoppers, to travelers stopping at a gas station. Repair workers and technicians invited to do work inside of a home are also considered business invitees. When it comes to business invitees, Florida landowners must regularly inspect the property and warn of any dangerous conditions that are known or that should have been known to the property owner.
Friends, family members, and other social guests fall into the category of licensees. Unlike the duties owed to a business invitee, landowners must reasonably maintain the premises and are obligated to warn their guests of any known dangerous conditions on their property.
Despite being on the property without permission, trespassers are still owed certain limited duties by property owners. As such, property owners are prohibited from engaging in conduct that intentionally or recklessly endangers the health and safety of a trespasser. Therefore, placing tripwires, spring-guns, or other “traps” could expose a landowner to liability if these items injure a trespasser. If a trespasser is discovered on a property owner’s land, the landowner must warn the trespasser of any known dangers.
Children conceivably make up a distinct fourth category that triggers a special duty of care owed by landowners. This is especially the case where there is a swimming pool on a residential property. Regardless of whether the child is an invited guest or a trespasser, property owners must take special care to safeguard children from dangerous conditions that are particularly attractive to children. This may include removal of the items and conditions or placing barriers/fencing around them. Such potential dangerous items or conditions include swimming pools, old appliances, disabled vehicles, and even trampolines.
It should be noted that Florida courts have held that there is no duty to warn against conditions that are open and obvious when the specific condition is either not inherently dangerous or, is so open and obvious that invitees could reasonably be expected to notice it and avoid the harm. Where the condition is deemed to be open and obvious, the court may analyze the actions of the invitee/claimant to determine whether the condition was known to him or her. Nevertheless, if a condition is determined not to be open and obvious, yet the evidence shows that the claimant knew of its presence and failed to exercise reasonable care, that claimant’s damages may be reduced by his or her own percentage of fault based on a comparative negligence defense.
Ultimately, a premises owner’s knowledge of the potential hazard must be shown to be greater than that of an invitee in order to trigger a duty to warn of any dangers that are unknown to the claimant. Failing to adequately warn individuals of a non-obvious dangerous condition can potentially lead to serious, or even catastrophic, injuries for which the property owner(s) may be liable. Proper warnings of such hazards ensure the safety of guests – even the uninvited ones – and may reduce the landowner’s risks if an injury occurs on the premises.