What are the main areas of homeowner liability in the United States?
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Liability simply refers to being legally obliged to conduct oneself in a particular way and being legally responsible for any damages that occur from inappropriate conduct. All homeowners have a liability to protect any person from harm or injury that enters their premises. There are three areas under which a homeowner is liable to anyone on the homeowner's premises:
Invitees: Under tort law, an invitee is anyone who was invited onto a person's property by the owner of the property for lawful reasons. An invitee can be a member of the public if the homeowner's land is considered open to the public or a professional invited to do business on the property. Hired contractors would be one example of invitees. A homeowner has a legal responsibility to make sure the property is safe for the invitee by doing proper inspections. The homeowner must also warn any invitee of any hazards that the owner is incapable of fixing at the time. Plus, if any contractor injures any other invitee, then the homeowner is liable for that invitee's injuries.
Licensees: Licensees differ from invitees in that a licensee is invited onto the homeowner's property by the homeowner despite the fact that the property is not open to the general public, usually for social reasons. Just like with invitees, a homeowner has a legal responsibility to make sure that the property is safe for all licensees to enter or to warn licensees if there are any hazards.
Trespassers: While a trespasser will be liable for trespassing, homeowners also have a legal obligation not to intentionally hurt a trespasser. For unknown trespassers, a homeowner has a legal duty not to intentionally trap or hurt the trespasser. If the homeowner expects or discovers the trespasser, then the homeowner is subjected to a "duty of common humanity." Under this duty, the homeowner is held liable for either intentionally harming the trespasser or failing to warn the trespasser of hazardous conditions. For example, a homeowner must surround an unfinished swimming pool with warning signs should a trespasser happen to enter the premises. However, a trespasser can only sue a homeowner if he/she can prove that the homeowner intentionally or maliciously harmed the trespasser. Also, while a homeowner may force the trespasser off of his/her property, the homeowner cannot do so if forcing the trespasser would cause serious harm. For example, a homeowner cannot force a trespasser off of his/her property should a trespasser seek shelter from a dangerous storm.
A homeowner is obliged to do several things in order to assure the anyone who comes onto the property is safe. In many cases, a homeowner can be held liable for injuries that occur on his or her property, from slips , trips, or falls due to any dangerous conditions in or around the home. Property owners are typically responsible for falls that happen due to ice, snow, flooding injuries, trips or falls due to poor lighting conditions, or hazards such as gaps in flooring or holes in the ground.
The homeowner may be held liable to “invitees,” that is, people to whom an explicit or implied invitation has been extended to come on to the property or into the home. Contractors and maintenance people (such as plumbers or lawn care personnel) are usually considered invitees.
Another group for whom the homeowner is usually responsible is "licensees." These are persons who are not typically there to work on or around the home, but persons with whom the owner has a relationship and has either given an explicit or implied invitation to come on to the property or into the home. These are social guests, and the homeowner if only liable for “willful or wanton” injury. The homeowner in these cases has failed to prevent injury from occurring by failing to maintain ordinary care to the home or property, which leads to dangerous conditions.
It comes as a great surprise to many homeowners when they discover that they are also liable for persons who trespass on their property. Trespassers are persons who enter a property or home without either expressed or implied permission. A homeowner cannot lay traps or create other pitfalls that may injure the trespasser. Reasonable, ordinary care is expected.
In addition to maintain the home and property to ordinary and reasonable standards, the homeowner is also required to carry insurance, which provides coverage in the event that an invitee, licensee, or even trespasser is injured on the property or in the home. It is necessary to have homeowner’s insurance even while a home is being built to provide coverage for injury to workers, or, again, even trespassers. For their part, insurance company’s must provide defense to the homeowner in the event of a lawsuit. The company chooses the lawyer, but the lawyer represents the homeowner, not the company. In most cases, the insurance company has the right to settle or take the case to court, as it deems necessary. While most companies allow the homeowner to express his opinion, the company is to seek the homeowner’s approval or even his or her consent.
There are also limitations and exclusion that can affect the coverage of a policy. A limitation is an exception to the policy as a whole; limitation are only applicable under specific circumstances for a specific period of time. Exclusions are broad exceptions, typically ruling out coverage for intentional, not negligent or accidental, acts.
In order for claims to be resolved, both insurance companies and policyholders must meet contractual obligations. As for insurance companies, they have specific lists of requirements of a policyholder must have met in order for a claim to be paid; these requirements are called “contract conditions.” One of the first requirements is typically that the homeowner promptly notify the company or any loss, or, in the case of injury, the time and place in which the accident occurred. If the homeowner is presenting a liability claim, the insurance company requires that the policyholder provide to them copies of any legal notices or other notices received.
After all the claims and papers have been filed and received, the insurance company decides whether it will pay all or any parts of the claim. Some of the reasons for refusal to pay include the insurance company’s position that the loss was not covered under the policy, often, but not always, due to an intentional act by the homeowner; they may claim that some act taken by the homeowner voided the policy. Should this happen, the homeowner can take the insurance company itself to court, as these decisions are open to interpretation and the courts may be able to reverse the decision.
There are other considerations other than the safety of visitors to the home. Safety measures, things like installing smoke alarms, insuring that fireplaces are clean and operational, and appropriate fences around pools, can all reduce risk, decrease liability, and often will lower a homeowner’s insurance rates.
For further information on homeowner liability and ways to possibly lower insurance rates, you may wish to contact one or more of the following:
Environmental Health Center
1025 Conn. Ave., NW, Suite 1200
Washington, DC 20036 USA
Phone: (202) 293-2270
National Safety Council
1121 Spring Lake Drive
Itasca, IL 60143 USA
Phone: (630) 285-1121
Fax: (630) 285-1315
National Swimming Pool Foundation
PO Box 495
Merrick, NY 11566 USA
Phone: (516) 623-3447
Fax: (516) 867-2139
U. S. Fire Administration
16825 S. Seton Ave
Emmitsburg, MD 21727 USA
Phone: (301) 447-1000
Source: Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, ©2003 Gale Cengage
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