As spring and summer approach, one thing that many people get excited about is the thought of hosting that first big barbeque of the season. Friends and family are over, the weather is perfect and the burgers are even better. After an afternoon of fun and relaxation, as your guests are preparing to leave, one of your neighbor trips over the garden hose, tumbling down onto the brick walkway. You want to do everything you can to help your neighbor, but in the back of your mind looms worry. Can your neighbor sue you? Will you have to pay the insurance bills?
As a homeowner, any time someone is hurt on your property due to your carelessness, you may be legally liable. The law does not expect you to guarantee that someone visiting your house will never get hurt, but rather expects you to take reasonable care to protect people from known hazards on your property. The question of legal responsibility hinges on whether negligence (that is, carelessness) contributed to an accident or injury. Generally a court will hold a homeowner responsible for a visitor’s injuries only if the homeowner was in some way negligent. For example, in some states, a homeowner might be considered responsible if someone slips and falls on the icy sidewalk outside the front of the house. Other common injuries and negligence suits involve power lawn mowers, swimming pools, boats, and other recreational vehicles. If you have questions about how a court in your area would handle a particular situation, it is best to talk with an attorney licensed in your state.
There are two categories of individuals that a court may give special consideration to: trespassers and children. Most courts will apply a lower standard of expected homeowner care when it comes to trespassers, while children, on the other hand, are usually owed a greater level of care than adults. The idea is that if you don’t know the trespasser is on your property, you can’t be expected to protect him or her the way you would a guest. And although a child might wander uninvited into your yard or pool area there is a legal standard called attractive nuisance which says you have a special duty to erect barriers to protect children. That’s why precautions such as fences, locked gates, and swimming pool covers – and good liability insurance – are so important.
And what about pets? Of course we aren’t taking about a visiting pet getting injured on your property, but rather, your pet injuring someone else. Typically, you are legally responsible for your pet’s actions. Most states have so-called dog-bites statutes, which directly state that pet owners are legally liable for injuries inflicted by their animals.
In addition to knowing your legal liability probably, you need to think about how to handle it in that moment when your neighbor trips over your garden hose. If someone does get injured on your property – first and foremost, do all you can to help, however, do not say anything to suggest or admit guilt or negligence. Express concern, ask what injuries might have been suffered, make the victim as comfortable as possible, call for medical assistance and so on. While it is natural to empathize with the injured party and even seek to assuage your own feelings of guilt, it’s not a good idea to complicate the situation by making potentially incrimination statements. Rather, leave it up to the law to decide.