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Contrasting California and Rhode Island Laws on Premises Liability Injury Claims

All states including Rhode Island and California have laws which protect people when they are injured by a property owner’s negligence or reckless conduct.  All states are not equal, however, in determining the duty owed by a property owner to persons coming onto the premises.  Dating back to English Tort law and progressing forward, the traditional means of determining this issue was to distinguish entrants onto land in three categories as follows: (1) Invitees; (2) Licensees; and (3) Trespassers.

Invitees were people on the property with the owners express consent and permission such as customers coming into a retail store to buy goods.  Licensees were people on site with permission but, not necessarily there for the benefit of the premises owner such as social guests invited to residential settings. Trespassers were those who did not gain the property owner’s consent to be there.  The laws in every state including Rhode Island and CA provided the greatest duty to protect business invitees by requiring that the owner or commercial tenant conduct inspections and maintenance to ensure that the property was safe for its intended use.  For licensees, including social guests, the owner was only required to remedy or warn of dangerous, known conditions.  As for trespassers, there was no duty except in cases of willful or wanton conduct on the part of the owner.

In 1968, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling in a case called Rowland v. Christian.  In that decision, the court decided that the distinctions of “invitee”, “licensee” and “trespasser” were arcane.  They decided to replace these with an overall standard that requires all landlords, property owners and lessees to simply act reasonably and guard against harm from all foreseeable dangerous conditions that could harm anyone coming onto their property.  This notion caused many states, including Rhode Island, to re-think their premises liability standards as well.  Some states adopted this broader “foreseeability” standard full bore and some states (R.I. included) adopted a more hybrid approach.  R.I. law has done away with the distinction between an “invitee” and a “licensee” but, still maintains the category of “trespassers” and the tight restrictions for recovery related to trespassing.

As a California personal injury practitioner, I think that the two states are, overall, not that different in their approach.  The Rowland standard uses elements such as the manner in which a person enters a property, the foreseeability of harm suffered, the control that the property owner has over the condition which caused injury and other factors to determine whether a duty should be owed.  While someone trespassing on property may be able to recover depending upon a lot of facts (e.g. gates carelessly left open, pathways being trodden over and over, etc.), it is still difficult for someone onsite without permission to claim that the owner should have known they would be there and should have cured any dangerous condition accordingly.  R.I. simply takes a slightly harder line when it comes to personal injury claims of trespassers.  Overall, however, it is necessary in both jurisdictions to show that the owner knew or should have known about a dangerous condition and, if they had been more cautious, they could have repaired or fixed the problem that caused bodily harm.  This strikes a good balance between the property owner not having to be an insurer of entrants’ safety but, still being required to act prudently in maintaining their premises in a safe condition.

Author Bio:  Steven M. Sweat is a partner with Glotzer & Sweat LLP, a personal injury law firm based in Los Angeles, CA with an emphasis on premises liability claims including slip and fall mishaps on commercial and retail property.  He is a regular contributor to this and other blogs on personal injury law.     

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