A burglar breaks into someone's house, slips and falls, and then sues the homeowner for thousands of dollars for his injuries. While this may sound like an urban legend insurance agents tell homeowners to sell policies, the fact is situations like this can and dohappen. Although a person may enter your property without your permission, there are times when the individual can successfully sue you for damages if he or she gets hurt.
Duty of Care to Trespassers
Property owners have a duty to ensure their premises (homes and businesses) are safe for people to use. This means the owner must keep the space clear of obstacles that could cause harm. For instance, a store owner must make sure the floors are free of slippery substances that could cause someone to fall. If there is a hazard, the owner of the premises must make a reasonable effort to notify others of the dangers (e.g. set out a wet floor sign).
However, a property owner's duty to trespassers is significantly less than his or her duty to guests, licensees, or others on the premises with permission. In the case of a trespasser, the only responsibility an owner has is to not knowingly trap or harm the intruder. For example, you can't rig a paint can to hit someone in the head if he or she tries to force the door to your home open.
In general, if someone enters your property without your permission and the individual gets hurt through no fault of your own, you wouldn't be held liable for the person's injuries.
Exceptions to the Rule
There are two exceptions to this rule, though. If you know of hazardous conditions on your property, you must warn everyone—including trespassers—of those hazards. For instance, a trespasser could sue you for damages if the person is hurt after falling in a gaping hole covered by a tarp and you didn't provide sufficient notice (e.g. a sign) that the hazard was there. However, you are not responsible for trespassers who injure themselves on dangerous conditions you didn't know about.
Another way you could find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit from an intruder is if you know or had reason to know people would frequently trespass on your property. This issue frequently arises in relation to properties that have something that would attract trespasser and intruders. For instance, an unused property that provides a shortcut from one area to another. In this instance, you must make reasonable efforts to keep the property free of hazards and/or warn potential trespassers about the existence of such obstacles.
If you have reason to believe children may be attracted to your property, your duty of care is even greater. You must take steps to minimize access to attractive nuisances (items that may attract the attention of children such as wells and swimming pools); otherwise you could be held liable if a kid gets hurt, even though the child didn't have permission to be on the property.
To learn more about premise liability and how to protect yourself from lawsuits, connect with an attorney like Putnam Lieb, who has experience with slip and falls and similar types of accidents for assistance.