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The duty of care owed by West Virginia landowners

For decades, West Virginia followed the traditional rule that how much care a landowner, like a business or a homeowner, owed someone who came on to their property depended heavily on how they came to be on the property.

There were three distinctions: a landowner had only a minimal obligation to protect someone who was trespassing, or on the land without permission, meaning the landowner only had to do what they could to prevent injuries to people the landowner actually invited on to the land.

There was also a middle-of-the-road status of someone who had permission, expressed or implied, to be on the land but had not been specifically invited. A landowner may have had some duty to protect such people, but that duty did not include actually having to taken any safety measures to clear or correct hazardous conditions.

For the last several years, however, the state has operated under the assumption that if a landowner allows someone on to their property, whether it is at an express invitation or just part of the owner's customary practice, then the landowner has an obligation to make the property safe. Landowners still don't have to go out of their way to protect trespassers, but they must avoid intentionally or recklessly trying to hurt them via a trap or other dangerous condition.

This means, in the case of a business, for example, that the business owner must do things like clear and de-ice the walks, make sure nothing high on shelves is going to fall and post warnings or barriers in dangerous areas of the store or even the property around the store.

When a property owner fails in this duty, a customer or other person can suffer a serious injury or even, tragically, die because of a hazardous condition on the property. When this happens, the customer or other person may want to learn more about pursuing compensation for things like medical bills and lost income, as well as non-economic damages like pain and suffering.

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