Q: What is the difference between a licensee, invitee, and trespasser in Georgia?
Georgia property owners and tenants (also called non-owner residents) have varying levels of liability under premises liability law for dangerous or hazardous property conditions depending on the class of visitor attempting to sue for damages. For the purposes of establishing liability, the state of Georgia differentiates between three classes of people who may be on your property: invitees, licensees, and trespassers.
Property owners have greater liability with respect to invitees and licensees, both classes of visitors invited to the property for professional, commercial, or personal reasons; however, property owners may still have limited liability for injuries sustained by trespassers.
How does a visitor’s classification affect liability in a personal injury case?
Property owners and tenants have a responsibility to maintain their properties in relatively safe condition, just as a guest to the property has the reasonable expectation of visiting without being injured because of unforeseen hazards.
There are some broad guidelines that would limit an owner or tenant’s liability. For example, regardless of whether a visitor was a contractor hired to work on the property or a guest for a dinner party, an injury sustained because of the visitor’s intoxication or reckless behavior may not be grounds for a lawsuit. A property owner’s obligation or liability to a visitor will largely depend on the class of visitor, as well as the circumstances surrounding the injury.
An invitee is invited to the property for a specific, mutually-beneficial purpose on the property. A roofer or general contractor hired to perform maintenance or repairs on a property, for example, would be an invitee under Georgia law, as would a customer or client visiting a business. Because of the nature of the relationship, Georgia property owners have the highest level of liability to these types of visitors.
If a contractor injures himself during the course of his work performing a repair or improvement on the property, the property owner would most likely not be liable for the injury. However, if the property owner failed to address an icy walkway, and the contractor slipped and fell because the hazard wasn’t marked, the homeowner may be liable.
A licensee is a person who is at the property without a contractual obligation and is not on the property for business reasons. This class of visitors would include social visitors and others who are not performing a service for the property owner.
Liability for licensee injuries is typically more limited than for invitees. In many cases, a homeowner is only liable for injuries sustained as a result of “willful or wanton” behavior. This includes:
- Failing to warn of or correct damage to the property that renders it unsafe (e.g., damaged stairs or handrails)
- Hazards in and around the home (e.g., holes in the ground)
- Dog or other animal bites
Property owners are usually not liable, however, for injuries resulting from clearly marked or visible hazards that the guest should have seen and assessed prior to the injury.
While it would seem logical that there not be liability for injuries sustained by a trespasser who should not be on the property in the first place, a property owner may still be liable for injuries sustained by a trespasser. Notably, a homeowner cannot willfully create hazards to deter or injure trespassers from entering their property (e.g., setting “traps” for trespassers).
Property owners who know that trespassers are likely to be on the grounds have an obligation to take reasonable measures to safeguard against injury, especially if those trespassers are minors. They may also be liable for injuries if they fail to give reasonable warning to prevent injury, although this obligation extends only to artificial conditions created or maintained by the property owner which he or she knows may be hazardous (e.g., failing to warn of an electrical fence).
Who is liable – the property owner or tenant?
In Georgia, a property owner is typically not liable for injury to tenants, their family, or guests unless there was a hazard on the property known to the property owner but not to the tenant. Examples of this might include a structurally unsound deck not disclosed to the tenant, or loose bannisters on staircases.
A tenant is responsible for maintaining the property in safe and reasonable condition and to timely notify the property owner of hazards on the property. Tenants are also responsible for notifying visitors of any hazards on the property (such as a poorly-lit stairwell or icy conditions), and for taking reasonable steps to ensure the safety of visitors to the property.
So, if you are injured at a friend’s or family member’s home, and your friend or family member rents the property, the landlord might be liable depending on the circumstances. Similarly, if you are hurt in an office building or commercial property, liability will depend on the circumstances of the accident and ownership of the building – issues you should discuss with a lawyer.
How does a visitor’s own negligence affect liability for an injury?
While owners and tenants have a duty to maintain safe conditions and safeguard visitors from injury, visitors have an obligation to take reasonable measures to avoid injuries. Thus, as noted earlier, a visitor who was intoxicated or acting recklessly may be at least partially liable for their injuries.
Georgia is a modified comparative negligence state. This means that injured people can recover damages even when they are partially at fault. But they may only recover damages if they are less than 50 percent at fault and can only recover damages proportionate to the other party’s percentage of fault.
Jason Schultz is a premises liability attorney who can help you with every stage of your personal injury case. Call our office at 404-474-0804 to set up a consultation.