Premises liability refers to the standard the owner or renter of a house or place of business owes someone that comes onto their property. This person could be at the owner’s request for that owner’s benefit, with permission, or even a trespasser. The standard is often a confusing mess, as our North Carolina court stated regarding Nelson v. Freeland, 507 S.E.2d 882, 883 (1998):
"[W]e have repeatedly waded through the mire of North Carolina premises-liability law. Nonetheless, despite our numerous attempts to clarify this liability scheme and transform it into a system capable of guiding North Carolina landowners toward appropriate conduct, this case and its similarly situated predecessors convincingly demonstrate that our current premises-liability scheme has failed to establish a stable and predictable system of laws. Significantly, despite over one hundred years of utilizing the common-law trichotomy, we still are unable to determine unquestionably whether a man who trips over a stick at a friend/business partner's house is entitled to a jury trial—a question ostensibly answerable by the most basic tenet and duty under tort law: the reasonable-person standard of care."
As you can see, a man that simply trips over a stick causes headaches in North Carolina law. Premises liability in North Carolina will come down to that trichotomy – was the injured person an invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser? An invitee is invited onto the land for mutual benefit of the parties, or for the benefit of the one doing the inviting (the owner or renter of the property, such as a store customer). A licensee is allowed onto the property, but usually it is only for that person’s benefit and not the benefit of the possessor of the property (such as a social guest). A trespasser is one who enters the land without permission or right.
While the law is vast and mired in misunderstanding, if a person is clearly characterized as one of these three, then the liability for the owner, renter, or possessor of land is clearly defined. For instance, “reasonable care” is owed to every invitee; however, for a trespasser, a landowner need only refrain from willful or wanton infliction of injury.
Even with a trespasser, though, “willful or wanton infliction of injury” doesn’t mean intentional inflicting of injury. A landowner, renter, or possessor of land can be held liable for a trespasser’s injuries in North Carolina, if that possessor is found to have engaged in activity that crosses the threshold of willful or wanton, defined in North Carolina as follows: “willful injury” constitutes actual knowledge of the danger combined with a design, purpose, or intent to do wrong and inflict injury; a “wanton act” is performed intentionally with a reckless indifference to the injuries likely to result.
Therefore, you can see that even with a trespasser a duty is owed by the owner, renter, or possessor of the property or premises; and, even the definitions of the duty of care that is owed a trespasser can be confusing and amorphous enough to bring liability on a landowner if a trespasser is injured. As quoted above, the Courts of North Carolina have recognized the difficulty of this aspect of personal injury law, and if you find yourself in the position of premises liability, you certainly should seek out an experienced attorney.