Fall is one of the most picturesque times of the year, but it can also be a hazardous time for homeowners. Fallen leaves may obscure cracked or uneven sidewalks, while wet leaves on walkways or floors can create slick surfaces that can lead to a slip-and-fall accident. In this article, we'll discuss the basics of homeowner liability when it comes to the accumulation of wet leaves and potential hazards to visitors.
Homeowner Liability Basics
Under a legal concept called "premises liability," homeowners have a responsibility to take certain reasonable steps to ensure that people who enter their property are not hurt, but in many states this duty varies depending on the visitor's legal status. Is he or she a licensee, invitee, or trespasser?
Licensees are people who are on your property for their own purposes, with your express or implied permission. Social guests and solicitors are usually considered licensees. Invitees are people who you have invited onto your property, such as contractors doing work on your house, or shoppers at your yard sale. A trespasser is someone who enters your property without your permission or authorization.
A homeowner's duty of care to trespassers is very low compared to that owed to invitees or licensees. As a general rule, homeowners are not liable for the injuries of trespassers and do not have to ensure the safety of trespassers on their property, unless the homeowner knows that trespassers often use the property, or unless the trespassers are children.
For licensees and invitees, a homeowner usually must take reasonable steps to inspect the property and remedy any hazards within a reasonable time. If there is a dangerous condition on the property that the homeowner knew (or reasonably should have known) about, then the homeowner may be liable if a licensee or invitee ends up getting hurt because of that condition.
Homeowners’ Duty Regarding Wet and Slippery Leaves
During the fall months, homeowners are often faced with the nature-made hazard of wet and slippery leaves, which create a slip-and-fall risk to pedestrians and anyone else on their property. It is the responsibility of the homeowner to keep sidewalks, walkways, entryways and other frequently-traveled areas reasonably free of wet and slippery leaves. Wet leaves can be as slippery as ice on sidewalks, especially on tile floors or entryways. What's reasonable? It depends on the circumstances, but in general a homeowner has a duty to clean up wet leaves within a sensible amount of time, once they have actual or constructive notice of the hazard, in order to avoid injury to others on the property.
To put this another way, if a homeowner has notice of the accumulation of wet leaves on the walkway leading to the front door, and fails to remedy the situation before the neighbor comes over for tea, if the neighbor slips and falls on the leaves, the homeowner will likely be considered negligent. In that situation, the homeowner could be held liable for the neighbor's injuries, although most homeowners' insurance would cover any injury claim filed by the neighbor, up to the policy limits.
For details on another seasonal issue for homeowners, see our companion article on snow removal laws.
What to Do If You Slip on Wet Leaves
If you slip and fall on wet leaves, make note of everything you remember about the accident and the scene, and if possible, take photos of the scene and the hazard (the location and condition of the leaves). Take down the names and contact information of the property owner and any witnesses who saw what happened.
After the accident, you should seek medical attention for any pain or discomfort you feel, so that your injuries can be treated and documented. Keep records of all medical treatment, medical bills and lost wages. All of this information will be essential to recovering any compensation from the homeowner (usually through his or her insurer). Learn more about how insurance affects a slip and fall claim.