A trend in Southern California that has continued apace over the course of the past several years is the movement of homeless individuals from areas in which they historically have congregated, to other points throughout the county, according to the Los Angeles Times. As the Times reports:
Homelessness burst its traditional borders several years ago, spreading first to gloomy underpasses and dim side streets, and then to public parks and library reading rooms and subway platforms. No matter where you live in L.A. County, from Long Beach to Beverly Hills to Lancaster, you cannot credibly claim today to be unaware of the squalid tent cities, the sprawling encampments…
You may be like many people who have a long history with homeless people in your neighborhood. On the other hand, you may be like a growing segment of the population that has witnessed the movement of homeless people into your neighborhood in recent times.
No matter the exact nature of how and when homeless individuals ended up in your neighborhood, you likely have some questions in regard to legal issues related to the situation. If you are like many people, one question you harbor is whether you’re legally liable if a homeless person gets injured on your property. The short answer to this question is: “It depends.”
The Legal Doctrine of Premises Liability
The legal doctrine known as premises liability governs legal liability, or legal responsibility, for a person who is injured on your property. This legal principle applies to residential and commercial property. In other words, it applies to your home or business.
In California, unlike some other states, you owe a duty of reasonable care to protect a person on your property no matter the reason an individual is on your premises. This contrasts with the law in some states that apply a different duty of care depending on why a person is on the premises. In these states, a distinction is made between a:
- Business invitee
The highest standard of care is owed to a business invitee because that is an individual is on your premises to benefit you. For example, a person is on your property to transact business at your store. The lowest duty of care is owed to a trespasser, a person on your property without your permission. Many people presume that this still is the law in California. It is not.
The Elements of Legal Liability in Regard to a Homeless Person
There are four essential elements that may render a home or business owner responsible for injuries sustained by a homeless person on the premises. First, there has to be an established duty of care. This was touched on a moment ago.
In California, even if a person trespasses on your property, you have a duty of care to protect against hazards on the premises that could cause injury to another person. This includes a homeless individual, according to California law. For example, if you have an electrified fence on your property capable of causing injury to another, you have a duty of care to ensure that proper warnings are placed about the danger. (You also need to ensure that such a fence is permitted by local ordinance; but, that is another story.)
In addition to a duty of care, in order to be responsible for injuries sustained by a homeless person on your property, you have to breach the duty of care owed to that individual. Using the electric fence example, a breach would be a failure to place appropriate warning signs.
The third element is what legally is known as proximate cause. The breach of the duty of care must be the proximate cause of the accident and injuries sustained by a homeless person on your property.
The technical definition of proximate cause is:
Proximate cause is the primary cause of an injury. It is not necessarily the closest cause in time or space nor the first event that sets in motion a sequence of events leading to an injury. The proximate cause produces particular, foreseeable consequences without the intervention of any independent or unforeseeable cause.
In very basic terms, in order for you to be responsible for injury to a homeless person on your property, the accident itself and the resulting injuries must be the result of the breach of the of care – and the accident and injuries must be reasonably foreseeable. For example, if you had an electrified fence and failed to place an appropriate warning, the injury of a homeless person coming into contact with the fence would be reasonably foreseeable. On the other hand, if you grew peanuts on your property and a homeless person trespasses on your premises, that individual has an allergic reaction would not likely be considered reasonably foreseeable.
The final element is that the homeless person on your property must have suffered actual injuries. In order to make a claim against you, a homeless person cannot claim that he or she might suffer some type of injury at some undefined point in time in the future.
If homeless individuals are in your neighborhood, you should consider taking affirmative steps to protect yourself from the prospect that they will enter onto your premises. The best way to protect yourself from a claim for injuries made by a homeless person on your property is to keep a homeless person off your premises in the first instance. Depending on the circumstances, posting “no trespassing” and “enter at your own risk” advisements may provide you at least some protection for you.
A more important step for you to take is to contact law enforcement and file a complaint if a homeless person trespasses onto your property. This demonstrates that you have taken an affirmative step to not only keep trespassers off your property but to protect against a person injuring themselves while on your property.