How Not to Get Hit With a Liability Lawsuit (but Don't Hold Us to It)

Sure, you shovel snow from your walkway so you can get out of the house, but there's a larger reason to take care of the area around your property. If you're a homeowner, landlord, renter, or business owner, you are at risk for a premises liability lawsuit if someone is injured on your property.

The injured person just has to prove that you knew about a potential hazard on your property -- or that you should have known about it -- and you could be on the hook to pay thousands for their medical care. To avoid this unnecessary expense, be aware of these six common causes of premises liability and take precautions to prevent them.

1. Dog bites

Imagine your dog is scared of strangers and accidentally bites a visiting neighbor. Even if you don't think your dog will hurt anyone, you can be held liable for injuries if you didn't try to keep it contained. Make sure your gates and doors are secure -- and if you know your pet is potentially dangerous, be doubly sure to keep it away from others.

2. Slips and falls

One reason it's important to keep sidewalks clear of snow and ice is to prevent accidental slips and falls. Lawyers typically warn potential plaintiffs that suing a property owner over a slip-and-fall injury makes sense only if medical costs are high enough to warrant the legal expenses they will incur when seeking compensation. Nevertheless as a homeowner, you should try to make sure slips and falls won't occur.

Outdoors, keep your sidewalks clear. Indoors, remember to wipe up spilled liquids that could cause someone to slip, and remove trip hazards like decor and electrical cords from the main path.

3. Driveway and sidewalk defects

Outside your home, you also want to avoid creating trip hazards that could lead to injuries and broken bones. Be sure to repair sidewalk cracks and indentions and remove protruding tree roots from walkways that passers-by could trip over.

4. Inadequate staircases

The change in height along a staircase makes it a likely place for a person to trip and fall. Take extra precaution to repair any broken treads, risers, and railings, so, for instance, a friend visiting your home doesn't step on a loose board, fall, and fracture his ankle. Also, ensure that the riser height, run depth, and variance from one step to the next meet local building codes. Failing to meet those standards will automatically mean your stairs are defective.

Be wary of slippery surfaces. A polished wood surface or worn-out carpet could cause a stair to be slippery. Outdoors, an uneven surface could cause rain or ice to pool on the stair, also causing it to be slippery.

5. Asbestos exposure

If you know or suspect you have asbestos in your home and it could become a health hazard, it's best to hire a licensed abatement contractor to remove the material. Especially if you are a landlord, it's import to inform your tenants about the presence of asbestos and let them know how you plan to manage it so that it doesn't create medical issues. While asbestos removal can be costly, eliminating the hazardous material from your home can increase your property value.

6. A swimming pool

Don't underestimate the dangers of swimming pools. About 50% of child drownings occur in backyard pools of neighbors, family members, and friends. If you have a pool, remove floats, balls, and other toys from the pool and surrounding area immediately after use so children are not tempted to enter the pool area unsupervised.

Then, ensure that you have secure fencing that is at least 4 feet high around the pool to prevent young children from gaining access to the area. A four-sided isolation fence separating the pool area from the house and yard reduces a child's risk of drowning by 83% compared to a three-sided property line, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Self-closing and self-latching gates that open outward with latches can prevent children from accessing the pool area. Also, automatic door locks and alarms can prohibit access and alert you if someone enters the pool area.

As you eliminate hazards around your home, remember that you can also protect yourself with liability insurance. The third-party coverage in a policy typically includes the following:

  • No-fault medical coverage to others to pay for medical expenses for injuries sustained at your home or property. Coverage generally ranges from $1,000 to $5,000.
  • Personal liability insurance to protect against accidents that result in bodily injury, sickness or disease, or property loss or damage. Liability covers you against lawsuits for bodily injury or property damage that you or family members cause to other people. It also pays for damage caused by your pets. Liability limits generally start at about $100,000 coverage; however, the Insurance Information Institute recommends having at least $300,000 worth of coverage.

If your net worth is more than that amount, you can also consider purchasing a $1 million umbrella policy that provides broader coverage, including claims against you for libel and slander, as well as higher liability limits. Generally, umbrella policies cost $200 to $350 for $1 million of additional liability protection.

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