Premises Liability and Trespassing: Your Rights After an Injury

Most people are familiar with the idea that you can hold the occupant of a poorly-maintained property accountable if it causes you to get hurt. This is known as premises liability, where the party responsible for a premise or location is liable for some preventable injuries. 

While most premises liability law is well-defined, matters can become more complex if the defendant accuses the plaintiff of trespassing. Property occupants or owners do not have the same responsibilities to someone on the premises without permission as to a guest or employee. As such, some property owners facing premises liability claims may claim that the plaintiff was trespassing when they were injured. 

These claims can make it significantly harder for premises liability accident victims to receive just compensation. Still, with the assistance of a skilled personal injury attorney, it is often possible to argue against these claims and receive damages to compensate you for your losses. 

How Dangerous Property Conditions Cause Liability

To understand why trespassing can alter liability for dangerous property conditions, it is important to understand how premises liability works. California law identifies four essential factual elements for a premises liability injury claim:

  • The defendant must own, occupy, or have primary control over the property.
  • While responsible for the location, the defendant neglected to maintain it appropriately.
  • The victim was harmed in a material way.
  • The defendant’s negligent maintenance was a substantial factor in the victim’s injury. 

If all four elements are proven, California jurors are instructed to rule that the defendant is liable for the victim’s losses. 

However, there are nuances to this idea. In California, many of these nuances revolve around the concept of “reasonableness.” For example, consider the “open and obvious” doctrine. This doctrine states that property owners may not be liable for injuries someone suffers if they were caused by a clear and obvious risk that a “reasonable person” would be able to spot and avoid on a casual inspection. 

For example, if there is a large, colorful spill in the middle of the floor, a reasonable person would likely avoid walking through it. If they walk through it anyway and slip, the owner may not be liable. This is because the owner’s negligent maintenance was less of a factor in the injury than the victim’s lack of judgment.

Another way that reasonableness may be used in premises liability arguments focuses on whether the owner could reasonably expect someone else to be at risk due to their negligent maintenance. If an owner reasonably does not believe anyone will use the property in a certain way, they are not negligent if they fail to maintain it for use and someone is hurt. 

Trespassing and Liability

In California, someone found to have been trespassing when injured usually cannot request damages from a property owner unless they are a child. The owner could not reasonably anticipate them being on the property. As such, they did not have a duty to maintain the property to protect the trespasser’s safety. 

This ties into another argument against premises liability for trespassers: the duty of care. This is a fundamental underpinning of negligence in California law. For someone to be found negligent, they must have owed the victim a duty of care and harmed the victim because they breached that duty. 

In general, property owners are presumed to have a duty of care toward invited guests. For businesses, this includes parties such as customers, employers, and other visitors during normal business hours. The invitation implies a guarantee of safety. By inviting these people onto the premises, the owner takes on the duty of making the location safe for normal use.

However, no such duty of care exists toward trespassers. By visiting the property unlawfully, they do not benefit from the implication of safety that comes with an invitation. As such, owners are not expected to provide warnings or protective measures to prevent injury. 

Assigning Liability in the Face of Trespassing Accusations

If a property owner accuses you of trespassing on their property when you were injured, you have two potential paths forward in your premises liability claim. The first option is to prove that you were not, in fact, trespassing. The second is to demonstrate that the owner should have reasonably anticipated your presence, even if you were not supposed to be there. 

The first situation is often preferable because California law uses a “pure comparative negligence” standard. Under this standard, multiple parties may be partially liable for an incident. For example, a trespasser could be found 60% liable for their injuries because they were trespassing. In comparison, the property owner may be 40% liable if they should have reasonably anticipated the victim’s presence. This can reduce the amount of damages you are eligible to receive.

Your personal injury attorney may make arguments against trespassing accusations such as:

  • The owner did invite you onto the property
  • You were reclaiming your own property that was taken by the premises owner
  • There was a public or private necessity to trespass, such as trying to rescue someone or protect your own belongings

These defenses can invalidate a trespassing claim and allow your case to proceed. 

Alternatively, you can argue that the owner should have anticipated your presence. For example, if the property regularly receives trespassers, the owner should know that more are likely to come by and take basic precautions like marking hidden drops and other perils. While you may still be found partially liable, you could still receive some compensation for your injuries. Clearly, trespassing allegations can heavily complicate premises liability claims. If you have been injured in an accident and are worried about trespassing claims, do not hesitate to consult the expert personal injury attorneys at the Law Office of Reuben J. Doing today. We are available to help you understand your options in your premises liability claim and pursue just compensation for your injuries in California.

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