You might be legally liable if someone has an accident in your home. Did your negligence or carelessness contribute to an accident or injury? Pitfalls include someone slipping and falling on an icy sidewalk, and accidents involving power lawn mowers, swimming pools, boats, and other recreational vehicles.
The best way to avoid liability is to prevent injuries on your property in the first place and protect yourself with a solid insurance policy in the event the unavoidable and unexpected does occur.
What are some liability risks?
Negligence is usually the basis of a liability suit. Take steps to avoid the conditions that would prove carelessness. Some examples of cases in which a court might find you negligent:
- failure to maintain your property or creation of a condition that may result in injury or damage to someone else's property;
- knowledge of a hazard and lack of intent to eliminate the hazard, erect barriers, or warn people who enter your property;
- lack of care in maintaining or creating hazards that might attract children;
- actions or inaction that might cause damage to your neighbors' property.
What’s a checklist for a safe home?
- Repair steps and railings.
- Cover holes.
- Fix uneven walkways.
- Install adequate lighting.
- Clear walkways of ice and snow as soon as possible.
- Be sure children do not leave toys on steps and sidewalks.
- Replace throw rugs that slip or bunch up.
- Reroute extension cords that stretch across traffic lanes.
- Repair frayed electrical cords.
- Keep poisons and other hazards out of the reach of children, even if you don't have children.
- Warn guests about icy conditions and other hazards. Restrain your pet.
- Erect barriers to your swimming pool; an automatic pool cover or a tall fence with a good lock that you lock, and an alarm on any door leading to the pool.
- Remove all guns or keep them securely locked and out of sight, where children cannot see them or gain access to them.
- Remove nails from stored lumber; secure any lumber piles
- Don't leave ladders standing against the side of the house or garage.
- Don't let children stand nearby when you mow the lawn.
- Don't let your guests drink and drive or drive under the influence of drugs.
What happens if someone is injured on my property and we are both at fault?
In some cases, a jury may decide that although a homeowner was partially responsible for what happened, the person injured was also partially responsible. This is called " comparative or contributory negligence." For example, if you forget to tell your houseguest that you have just dug a pit in your back yard for the new septic system, and the guest decides to get a breath of fresh air and wander around in the back yard in total darkness, a jury might find both of you partly responsible for your guest's broken leg. In that case, the jury might reduce the amount of the damage award you might otherwise have to pay.
What about liability in regard to children?
The courts have ruled that some dangerous places look like such fun that landowners should expect children to come play.
The law calls these "attractive nuisances." Even though an uninvited child wandering into your yard to inspect the swimming pool might well be a trespasser, the law says you have a special duty to erect barriers to protect children from harm's way.
If there is a way in, the child may find it and may get injured and you may be liable. That is why precautions such as fences, locked gates, and swimming pool covers—and good liability insurance—are so important.
If I host a party in my house, am I liable for my guests' actions?
You might be liable if you let your guest drink too much, then put him into his car and send him out on the highway. Host liquor liability insurance policies are available.
What about liability concerning my pets?
The law holds people responsible for the actions of their pets. Most states have so-called "dog-bite statutes," holding owners legally liable for injuries inflicted by their animals. If your state has no such statute, you may still be found liable under the common-law rule that owners are legally responsible if they knew the animal was likely to cause that kind of injury. You may also be found liable if you violated a leash law or a requirement to keep your pets fenced.
Know your pet's temperament and keep it out of the path of strangers. Keep vaccinations current, and post warning signs if you think your pet might injure someone.
What should I do if someone is injured on my property?
First and foremost, do all you can to help—express concern, ask what injuries might have been suffered, make the victim as comfortable as possible, call for medical assistance, etc. Do not, however, say anything to suggest or admit guilt or negligence. While it is natural to empathize with the injured party and want to soothe any pain and suffering, as well as your own feelings of guilt, it is not a good idea to complicate your potential liability with such statements. Rather, leave it up to the law to decide who was responsible.
Notify your insurer in writing (and speak to your attorney) as soon as possible. Do not talk with the other party or their attorney about liability until you have taken these steps. You may well decide later to offer to defray some medical bills of the injured party, but do this after you have had the chance to review the situation with a clearer head and the appropriate parties.