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Keeping Your Property Safe for Visitors: It’s the law!

Did you know that you are responsible for anyone who steps foot on your property, whether you invited them or not? If you’re like most homeowners, you may not be aware of your responsibility to keep children and others safe in your neighborhood. You may believe that the safety of neighborhood children, as well as other visitors to other properties, is the responsibility of their parents (or other property owners). However, according to state law, a homeowner is responsible for all persons on their premises – whether they are permitted to be there or not.

Historically, homeowners were required to follow the “attractive nuisance” doctrine. According to Emily Doskow and Lina Guillen, attorneys and authors of Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries, & Noise, the attractive nuisance doctrine stated that “property owners who [had] something on their property that [was] both inviting and dangerous to children [had] a special legal responsibility to try to prevent injuries to children – whether or not those children were invited onto the property.” Objects that might lead to such trespassing included swimming pools and trampolines.

California, however, does not abide by this rule. A California court changed the law in 1970. Today, “California property owners have a general duty to keep their property in a reasonably safe condition. The duty also requires homeowners to warn others of dangers on their land that might not be readily apparent. The attractive nuisance doctrine, and laws regarding a homeowner’s potential liability to people on their land, are part of the area of the law known as ‘premises liability.’”

California’s Premises Liability Law

Under California’s premises liability law, “property owners and occupants have a duty of care to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition and to warn guests and visitors of lurking dangers that may not already be open and obvious.”

This means that you must maintain and inspect your property, repair any potentially dangerous conditions, and provide adequate warning of any dangerous conditions.

If you neglect to keep your property safe, you may have to pay compensatory damages to cover medical bills, physical therapy, continuing medical care, lost wages, lost earning capacity, scarring or disfigurement, and pain and suffering. Common situations that may give rise to a premises liability lawsuit include:

  • Children on the property
  • Animal and dog bites
  • Slip-and-fall accidents
  • Swimming pool injury
  • Inadequate maintenance
  • Dangerous property conditions

Details surrounding homeowner requirements can be found in California Civil Code section 1714.

“Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his [or her] willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his [or her] want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his [or her] property or person, except so far as the latter has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury on himself [or herself].”

What about trespassers?

Even people who trespass onto your property have rights under California law. As a property owner, you must provide a “reasonable amount of safety” for those entering your property – whether an invitee, licensee, or trespasser. Here’s a definition of each type of visitor and your legal responsibility to protect them.

  • Trespassers are people who are on your premises without your permission or invitation. You only have a duty to not willfully cause a trespasser harm.
  • Licensees are people who are on your property for their own purposes and with your express or implied consent. You cannot willfully cause a licensee harm and have to warn a licensee of non-apparent dangers.
  • Invitees are people who are on the property by your invitation and for your financial benefit. You have to look for dangerous conditions and either fix them or warn invitees about them.

Typically, it is difficult to find a court that sways on the side of the trespasser.

Additionally, you have the right to protect yourself on your property. “Under Penal Code 198.5 PC, California law follows the legal principle known as the ‘castle doctrine.’ Under the castle doctrine, there is no duty to retreat if a resident confronts an intruder inside his or her own home. Residents are permitted to use force against intruders who break into their homes (or attempt to force themselves inside).”

What if someone is injured on your property?

There is no specific outline for what is owed if a person is injured on your premises. Often your insurance takes care of any medical expenses involved. Or, you may opt to take the neighbor to small claims court. However, in severe situations, you should consult with an attorney to determine the best plan of action.

If you end up going to court, be prepared. Here’s a brief overview of the factors commonly included in a court’s decision:

  1. the injured person’s intentions in visiting the property
  2. whether the property was surrounded by a fence
  3. any history of people getting injured on the land
  4. if a pool is involved, whether the pool is above ground or below ground
  5. the homeowner’s actions in inspecting the property, if any
  6. the cost of repairing an unsafe condition
  7. the obviousness of the dangerous condition

Furthermore, the plaintiff must prove the following:

  1. The defendant owned, leased, occupied, or controlled the property.
  2. The defendant was negligent in the use or maintenance of the property.
  3. The plaintiff was harmed.
  4. The defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s harm.

According to section 1714 of the Civil Code, the test the court applies to your liability as the property owner is whether “in the management of [your] property, [you have] acted as a reasonable [person] in view of the probability of injury to others … ” (Rowland v. Christian, supra, 69 Cal. 2d at p. 119)

How does this apply to children?

Children and adults both fall under the same laws in California court. Children are no longer protected under the attractive nuisance doctrine. However, the court may consider additional factors as to whether you should be held responsible, including the following:

  • whether you knew or should have foreseen that children were likely to trespass
  • whether you knew of a condition on the property that would be dangerous to children and pose a substantial risk of injury
  • whether the child should have discovered and understood the risks posed by the dangerous condition
  • the extent of your control over and ability to remedy the dangerous condition

As a property owner, making sure your property is safe for visitors should be a priority. Many premises liability injury cases could have been prevented had the property owner taken more care. Paying attention to your property’s condition and staying on top of repairs and problems can help you protect your visitors – and – trespassers from injury.

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