Can Former Owners Be Held Liable For Dangerous Property Conditions?
GENERALLY, PREVIOUS OWNERS OF PROPERTY ARE NOT LIABLE FOR INJURIES OCCURRING AFTER TRANSFER OF OWNERSHIP.
Premises liability is a negligence-based cause of action (claim) which allows injured people to recover damages (normally, money) in return for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on land or, in appropriate situations, buildings and other fixtures or improvements constructed on land. In some cases, natural phenomena like trees and bushes can give rise to premises liability claims as well.
In most cases, a defendant’s liability for premises liability springs from the defendant having ownership, possession, or control of the property where the injury or damage occurred. Although any one of the three–ownership, possession, or control–may be sufficient to create liability (assuming the other elements of the claim are also met), the general rule requires the presence of at least one.
This means that, generally speaking, a former owner of property is not legally liable for injuries and damage that result from dangerous conditions on the land that person or entity formerly owned. This is true even if the former owner created or knew about the dangerous condition. Sale or transfer of ownership (or, in some cases, transfer of control) of the property often “breaks the chain” of liability, releasing the former owner of liability for injuries occurring after the transfer occurred.
However, as with many legal rules, there are exceptions.
FORMER OWNERS WHO KNOWINGLY CONCEAL DANGEROUS CONDITIONS MAY STILL BE LIABLE FOR INJURIES OCCURRING AFTER A SALE OR TRANSFER.
A person (or company) who conceals knowledge of a dangerous condition, defect, or hazard on property may be held liable for injuries occurring after the transfer or sale, where:
— The former owner knew about the dangerous condition or hazard prior to the sale.
— The former owner took steps to actively conceal the existence of the hazard.
— The buyer or new owner was unaware of the hazard.
The law disfavors fraud and concealment of dangers that might cause harm. For this reason, California law recognizes an exception to the general rule that transfer of ownership cuts off a property owner’s liability for dangerous conditions where the former owner actively tried to hide the hazard.
Public policy also favors holding people responsible for injuries when they had the “last good chance” to avoid the harm. If a previous owner knew about a dangerous condition, but took steps to ensure that no one else had knowledge of it, that owner had the “last good chance” to repair, mitigate, or warn people about the condition. Moreover, (s)he made a conscious decision to hide the hazard instead of warning others of its existence. For both of these reasons, the law may–but does not always–hold such a person liable if harm results from the concealed danger.
Not all former owners will be held liable for concealed hazards. Willful and deliberate concealment is required — and this is rare. If you believe a former owner might have concealed a hazardous condition on property you purchased, or that you were injured as a result of such concealment, contact an attorney for an analysis of your situation and potential rights.
Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR AND ANY PERSON. Your rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal claims. Speak with an experienced lawyer promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, possible damages, and options. You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Negligence and premises liability claims are complicated and fact-dependent. If you believe you have a claim against a property owner who permitted or failed to repair a dangerous condition, or any other type of legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your possible rights and claims.