In New Jersey, premises liability laws have changed over time as courts address more diverse and nuanced cases. Common law has evolved to be more flexible in addressing premises liability lawsuits, but the basic concepts underlying these claims have remained constant.
While each individual circumstance may be different, whether or not you can seek damages from a property owner will generally depend upon your relationship to him or her, the property owner’s role in the injury and your purpose for being on the property.
Relationship to the property owner
Under New Jersey law, three types of visitors may enter a property: social guests, business invitees and trespassers. If you trespassed onto the property in question, it is less likely that you will be able to receive compensation, but there are circumstances when a court has held property owners responsible for the injuries of trespassers. This generally occurs when the property owner knew of the trespasser’s presence and did not take reasonable care to ensure his or her safety.
Social guests have a greater right to be present, and therefore property owners owe them a greater duty of care; however, courts have ruled that social guests also have a personal responsibility to learn the premises and use good judgment to avoid potential dangers. In other words, if you were visiting a close friend when the injury occurred, a court may rule that you should have known of hazards on the premises and avoided them. In some cases, a judge may still hold the owner liable if he or she did not warn you of dangers of which you were unaware.
Finally, business invitees warrant the greatest duty of care. If you were on the premises to conduct business, you may have the greatest claim to receive compensation if the owner did not take reasonable care to keep the property safe.
Over time, however, courts have moved toward using these identities as just one factor among all relevant circumstances. Courts will also consider whether you were exercising good judgment or being reckless at the time in question, whether or not the property owner knew of potential dangers, and what he or she had done to rectify them. And courts will take into account how obvious or hidden the hazard was, among any other factors a court deems relevant.