Stay vigilant to avoid premises liability

By Jonathan Schmidt / Guest Column

Personal injuries can arise in a wide variety of circumstances. Sometimes they’re the result of a bike or car accident; other times, they can be the result of unsafe circumstances at work.

Many personal injuries also arise because of dangerous conditions on another individual’s property. These conditions, like a crumbling step or slippery floor, can occur when attending an event or shopping for groceries. Depending on the circumstances, the individual who owns the property may be liable for your injuries.

Injuries that occur as a result of dangerous conditions on another individual’s property are known as premises liability actions. How and when an owner can be held liable depends on the condition that caused the accident and the reason that the injured individual was on the property. Specifically, the requirements are differ­ent for those who are invited onto the property (invitees) and those who enter without permis­sion (trespassers).

Invitees are individuals that have been invited onto a property in some fashion. This could be because they are customers visiting a store, work­ers making a delivery or friends coming over for the evening. When invitees are on another’s property, the owner of the property owes them a duty of reasonable care.

Under Iowa law, an owner may be held re­sponsible for the injuries of another where he or she:

  • Knows about a danger or a risk on his prop­erty, such as a pothole or a broken step
  • Knows or should have known that an invi­tee would not know about the risk or realize its dangers (perhaps because they were not visible)
  • Fails to take action to reasonably protect the invitee from the risk
  • The invitee is injured as a result


First of all, this requires that the owner had knowledge of the dangerous condition. Where the danger is unknown to everyone, including the owner, the owner cannot be held responsible for a failure to protect the invitee.

Second, the owner must also know or have reason to believe that the invitee would not be aware of the risk. Thus, if a giant swimming pool sits in the middle of the lawn, the owner may be able to claim that they assumed an invitee would see the swimming pool and avoid it.

Third, the owner must also not have taken any action to protect the invitee from the risk. Where the owner attempts to protect someone and the invitee injures himself anyway (perhaps by going around a safety barrier), the owner is not liable for these actions.

Finally, the risk itself must actually cause the injury.

What about trespassers?

Because trespassers are on the property without permission, they are subject to much harsher standards. Owners generally do not owe a duty to protect individuals they don’t know are on their land.

Instead, owners will typically only be liable to trespassers if they take action to intentionally in­flict injuries on them – such as by setting up traps or other obstacles.

Considering the actions of invitees

As with all types of negligence claims, the fault of an owner for a personal injury that occurs on their property must also be balanced against any fault of the invitee. This does not mean that invitees should be held responsible for dangers they could not have known about. It means the invitees who were aware of a danger and proceeded to take the risk anyway cannot pin all of the fault on the owner.

When the actions of the invitee are primarily re­sponsible for the accident, this may mean that the invitee is the one who must bear the responsibility. As a practical matter, the courts will have to decide who is most at fault.

Premises liability actions can often arise sudden­ly and unexpectedly. When this happens, it can be difficult to figure out if someone is to blame for the injury or if it is simply a situation of bad luck.

Jonathan Schmidt is an attorney and partner with Nazette, Marner, Nathanson & Shea LLP. He practices in areas of business and litigation. He can be contacted at or