What Duty Do Landowners Owe to Trespassers?
COMMON LAW RULES ABOUT “TYPES OF ENTRY” NO LONGER GOVERN PREMISES LIABILITY CLAIMS.
Originally, California law held landlords and property owners to a different standard depending on the reason an injured person originally entered the defendant’s property.
The highest level of duty was owed to “invitees” – people the owner “invited” or welcomed onto the land. The class of invitees included customers (“business invitees”), personal guests, family and friends, and anyone else the land owner “invited” to enter the property–either directly or by implication. (For example, a business that was open to the public “invited” all members of the public to enter during business hours.) Land owners had a duty to investigate and inspect the property, discover all reasonably discoverable hazards, and mitigate them or warn invitees of their existence.
Under the common law, “licensees”–people the land owner allowed onto the land, even though the property was not open to the general public– were also owed a duty of care. Specifically, the land owner had the duty to warn licensees of known hazards, and to be reasonably aware of discoverable hazards–however, the land owner’s duty of inspection was somewhat lower with licensees than it was for invitees.
Common law rules gave the land owner no liability or duty toward “trespassers” – those who entered the property without permission.
However, California has changed the common law rules by statute, and the status of a person who enters land is no longer dispositive of whether or not the landlord is liable for injuries.
UNDER CALIFORNIA LAW, A LAND OWNER* OWES A DUTY OF REASONABLE CARE TO ALL PEOPLE WHO ENTER THE LAND, REGARDLESS OF STATUS.
* This “land owner” duty also applies, in appropriate cases, to people who control or possess land, whether or not they are also owners.
Current California law holds that a person who owns, controls, or possesses land has a duty to maintain and control property with reasonable care. Failure to do so may result in liability if a person who enters the land is injured, whether the common law would have considered that person an invitee, a licensee, or even a trespasser.
An injured person’s status as an invitee, licensee, or trespasser may still be relevant to determine whether or not the defendant acted with reasonable care. For example: a property owner who builds a nine-foot fence topped with barbed wire to keep people out, and posts warning signs on the fence saying “DANGER: Holes” may have less liability to a thief** who climbs or cuts the fence in the night and subsequently suffers injury from falling into a hole than (s)he does to a business invitee who stumbles and falls into an unmarked hole while on the property, with permission, during business hours.
**(Also, the land owner may have an additional affirmative defense if the injured plaintiff was committing a felony on the land at the time of injury.)
Premises liability claims are highly fact-specific, and involve significant legal analysis. If you were injured on property, regardless of your status at the time of injury, contact an attorney for an analysis of your personal rights and potential claims.
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.