California Premises Liability: May Owners Be Held Liable for the Actions of Third Parties?
In the state of California, there are laws in place that make property owners liable for negligent property maintenance if that negligence causes injury, explains a personal injury attorney in the state. The basis of property owner liability is established in Civil Code section 1714, which states that "Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person, except so far as the latter has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury upon himself or herself."
Essentially, this law creates a general negligence standard under which a property owner is responsible if he or she fails to maintain property and if harm results from that failure.
A 1968 case called Rowland v. Christian helped to clarify further when a property owner should be considered negligent. This case established the premise that liability be determined in light of a number of different factors (often called the Rowland factors). Considerations include: the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff; how closely connected the defendant's negligence was with the plaintiff's injury; the moral blame attached to the defendant's actions; the policy of preventing similar harm in the future; the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing liability; the availability, cost and prevalence of insurance for the risk; and the degree of certainty that the plaintiff was actually injured.
The California Civil Code rule, the Rowland factors and a large body of statutory and case law defining property-owner negligence have come to be known as premises liability law. In most cases, lawsuits that arise under premises liability law involve situations where someone invites a visitor onto his property and that visitor suffers injury. However, a property owner can also be liable under premises liability/ negligence law if his or her negligence in maintaining a property causes injury to neighbors.
If a property owner knew or should have known of a risk on his or her property and neglected to act, he or she may be held liable if someone is injured—even if the actions of others contributed to the harmful event.
This general rule is explained very simply in the Restatement Second of Torts section 448:
"The act of a third person in committing an intentional tort or crime is a superseding cause of harm to another resulting therefrom, although the actor's negligent conduct created a situation which afforded an opportunity to the third person to commit such a tort or crime, unless the actor at the time of his negligent conduct realized or should have realized the likelihood that such a situation might be created, and that a third person might avail himself of the opportunity to commit such a tort or crime."
In other words, this means that even if a property owner allowed conditions to exist in which a crime might occur, the property owner cannot be liable when a crime does occur unless the property owner actually realized (or should have realized) that he or she was setting up a situation where the crime could happen.
Courts in California have a long history of holding property owners liable even when there is an intervening act because the property owners are considered to be negligent in failing to take action after realizing a crime could occur. This position is explained in Restatement of Torts section 449, which was relied upon in a California case called Landeros v. Flood (1976) and which states:
“If the likelihood that a third person may act in a particular manner is the hazard or one of the hazards which makes the actor negligent, such an act whether innocent, negligent, intentionally tortious, or criminal does not prevent the actor from being liable for harm caused thereby."
One example of such a case where this rule was applied was in a case where a bulldozer operator left the bulldozer accessible and unlocked. Someone stole the bulldozer and crashed it. Although the theft was an illegal intervening act, it was not a superseding cause of injury that absolved the bulldozer owner of his responsibility because the owner was negligent in not realizing (as he should have) that the theft of an unsecured bulldozer was a likely crime.
Essentially, this means that if a property owner believes a crime is likely on his or her property and is negligent in not doing something to stop that crime, the fact that the crime occurred doesn't break the chain of causation and the property owner can still be held liable. In simplest terms: if the property owner knew a dangerous person was coming to the property to commit a crime and didn't do anything to stop the dangerous person, then the property owner is still responsible because he or she was negligent in failing to stop the crime.
Additional information on state premises liability law is available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.
If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to speak with a California personal injury attorney, feel free to call 866-981-5596.