Archive for July, 2013

Homeowner Liability – To warn or not to warn…

Home Possessor’s Liability for Injuries on His Land: California’s Exceptional Rules!

            You’re having a big party for 4th of July, you spent all day cooking and cleaning in preparation for your guests and everyone is having a wonderful time until. Mary slips over the snag in the carpet you meant to get fixed the following week.  Mary breaks her arm and sues you for all of her medical expenses including pain and suffering.  What now?!?

            Beyond bringing Mary flowers at the ER, you need to start thinking about who’s at fault. California generally enjoys specific and unique laws as compared to other states, and laws regarding home possessor’s liability for injuries on their land are no exception.  Most states distinguish the type of guest the injured party is and establish the duty of care accordingly.  For example, in most states, land possessors owe a higher duty of care to people who come onto their land for the purpose of business dealings (legally defined as invitees) as compared to trespassers who enter the home without permission of the land possessor.  California, however, has become part of a minority of states who do not to follow common-law principles.

            In accordance with a California Supreme Court case, Rowland v. Christian[1], California has eliminated all distinctions between types of guests and instead established a blanket standard.  The Court in Rowland determined that the appropriate test for land possessor’s liability is pursuant to California Civil Code Section 1714[2].  This section bases liability on whether the landowner acted reasonably with regard to care of the property.  The Court established several elements that juries may consider when establishing liability.  Some of these considerations are: whether or not the landowner could foresee the harm (could you foresee that someone would slip over the snag in the carpet?); moral blame of land possessor’s conduct (was it morally wrong for you to not fix the carpet before having so many people over?); extent of burden to the land possessor (how burdensome would it be for you to pay Mary’s medical bills?) and so on.  At first glance, these standards don’t seem too unreasonable.  It seems that a logical jury could come up with a fair and responsible verdict in accordance with these elements.  But, there’s a catch: the deletion of distinctions means you may even be liable for trespassers who come onto your land and harm themselves!  The only exception, in accordance with California Civil Code Section 846[3] is if a trespasser enters another’s property for recreational purposes (such as hiking, hunting, camping, sightseeing etc.), and even the exception has loopholes.              Many critics of the California law argue that the only effect of the transformation from the common-law standard is as an invitation to trespassers and/or intruders into private property without deterrence. However, the courts that have adopted this standard believe that while it may over-deter in some cases, it is an effective way to encourage land possessors to ensure their property is free from any known dangers. 

            So how do you avoid being liable for other people’s injuries? No, you don’t have to ban all people from coming over.  If you are having a party at your home, remember to warn all of your guests of any dangerous condition that may potentially cause an injury.  These include anything where anyone can trip, any slippery conditions or lose knobs that may potentially fall off, etc.  Get creative – better to over-warn than under-warn!  Additionally, regularly inspect your property for anything that could potentially cause liability for trespassers.  If the danger is unknown you may be penalized for not discovering the danger, so be thorough!  If by chance you are in a situation where a trespasser is injured on your property, proof of regular inspections may work to your advantage and take away from any moral blame on your end.  Lastly, purchase a good home insurance liability plan so that in case you are found at fault, you won’t be forced to pay out of pocket expenses.

            As it turns out, the incredibly high cost of living is not the only penalty for the universally envied weather and location California enjoys.

The guest author of this blog, Emilia Arutunian, is a second year law student at University of San Diego, School of Law.  She is passionate about helping people understand the law so that they will have an easier time following it. Want to learn more? Become a guest blogger? Contact BONNICI LAW GROUP today!



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