What Is Willful Negligence and How Does It Affect a Premises Liability Claim?

Accidents that are caused by a property owner’s failure to keep property safe are known as “premises liability” cases. The law imposes a duty on most property owners to keep property in a safe condition — or at least to warn of hazards — if the owner should realize that a property condition might injure property users.

Property owners that face liability for failing to keep property in a safe condition include companies that own stores, malls, office buildings, and hotels, companies that own or manage apartment buildings and parking lots, and individual homeowners. Examples of dangerous property conditions include slippery floors, exposed wiring, tripping hazards, loose stair rails, poor lighting, and inadequate security.

The duty varies, however, depending on the nature of the property and the reason the injury victim was on the property. A premises liability lawyer can help injury victims understand whether a property owner’s breach of duty might entitle them to compensation for injuries they sustained.

Ordinary Negligence and Premises Liability Claims
Property owners and tenants are required to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises safe for people who are invited onto the property. The invitation can be either express or implied. For example, when a store opens for business, the store impliedly invites customers to enter its premises.

For example, drivers have a duty to exercise ordinary care when they operate vehicles. “Ordinary care” is the kind of careful behavior that society would expect from most reasonably prudent individuals. In most cases, negligence is defined as a breach of the duty to exercise ordinary care. Negligence is commonly used as a synonym for carelessness. Lawyers sometimes refer to a breach of the ordinary care standard as “ordinary negligence.”

The law makes property owners and tenants “liable in damages” to people who are injured because of the failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping their property safe. In other words, negligent property owners can be held responsible for paying compensation to injury victims when they fail to correct a property defect if a reasonably cautious property owner would have either detected and repaired the defect or warned property users of its existence.

Willful Negligence and Premises Liability Claims
While the law creates a duty of ordinary care with regard to most “invitees” (people who are invited onto property), they impose a lesser duty with regard to “licensees.” A licensee is a person who:

  • Is not a customer, employee, or trespasser
  • Has not entered into a contract with the property owner
  • Enters the property “for his own interests, convenience, or gratification.”

Social guests are the most common example of a licensee under the law. Property owners do not owe a duty of ordinary care to social guests, but they must refrain from willfully negligent acts. A property owner engages in willful negligence by behaving in a reckless or wanton manner. The property owner need not intend to cause a specific harm to a specific person, but must intend to take some action with knowledge that the action will create a hidden peril that is likely to harm a licensee.

The facts in Waldo v. Moore illustrate the concept of willful negligence. Moore wanted to have very hot water in his washing machine. He set the thermostat on his water heater to accomplish that goal. Waldo took a bath in Moore’s house, as she had done before, but Moore failed to warn Waldo that he had increased the temperature of the water. Moore was burned as she entered the bath, and she fell into the bath water before she could step out of the tub. She suffered severe burns across her body. Moore intentionally created a hidden danger by raising the water temperature. He, therefore, had a duty to warn his guest so she could avoid being burned. The appeals court concluded that a jury could find Moore’s actions to meet the standard of willful negligence.

If you or someone you know was involved in an accident caused by willful negligence, contact a personal injury lawyer today.