Personal liability in certain situations can strike some homeowners as “odd.” Most people recognize that they have liability if a friend or family member is injured during a routine visit. But what happens when an intruder is injured during a break-in? Believe it or not, the homeowner might actually be liable in civil court to cover the criminal’s medical bills! That’s why it pays to know how and when you’re liable. Here are the facts.
Liability almost always stems from negligence.
A real estate attorney at Woods Lonergan PLLC commented: “It doesn’t happen often, but we once had a client whose home was subject to a [breaking and entering] offense, and the trespasser sued after being caught. Turns out he had slipped on some ice when the homeowner returned from work and he had to flee in a hurry. The case surprised a lot of people.”
In this particular case, the homeowner explained in court that no one used the back entrance where the trespasser slipped — and so the homeowner was found not negligent when he failed to clear the area of ice. The case was won.
But what surprised many of the case’s onlookers was the fact that the case could have easily gone in the criminal’s favor. All that the criminal needed to do was prove that the exit was used for more than just criminal activity, and the defendant would have needed to clear the path after a recent storm to maintain a fair standard of duty of care.
Legally, duty of care does not apply in these situations. But it can seem like it does from a technical standpoint. Homeowners still need to maintain a home to fair standards that it is not dangerous, especially if hazards might cause grievous or fatal injuries. Homeowners also have the “duty” to warn even trespassers of potential hazards. Break-ins usually don’t occur when someone is at home, which means a sign would be required.
Although trespassers are allowed to sue, they win cases less frequently than guests. That’s because the standards and liability laws aren’t the same for a trespasser as they are for a guest. Primarily, this means that a homeowner has a higher duty of care when inviting a guest versus when not inviting someone who simply shows up unannounced or breaks in.
The duty of care standards can be mitigated if the homeowner informs the guest (invited or not) of the potential dangers on the property.
Guests or customers are allowed to sue when the homeowner didn’t provide an adequate duty of care. Although the homeowner need not survey the property for damages, the homeowner does have the responsibility to repair or fix damages when they are known. If unknown hazards exist and an injury results, but the homeowner should have known about those hazards, then the guest or customer might build a decent case.
Dangers might include slippery or uneven floors, leaks, pets, flammable materials, or hazardous chemicals.