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Can a Trespasser Sue for Premises Liability in California?

trespassing private property sign

Premises liability is the area of law regarding the liability of a property owner when someone gets hurt on their property, such as in a slip and fall, trip and fall, or even an assault. In many states, the law imposes different obligations and liability on property owners depending on whether the victim was an “invitee,” “licensee,” or “trespasser.” In states that have these distinctions, trespassers are provided the least amount of protection. There, a property owner is not liable to trespassers who got injured because of the landowner’s negligence, but only if the property owner intentionally created a dangerous condition to harm trespassers, like laying traps.

California law, however, is not concerned with the legal status of the accident victim. Instead, the law imposes a general duty on landowners to keep their premises reasonably safe. Does this mean that even trespassers could sue a property owner if they were injured because of a dangerous condition on the property they were trespassing on? It might. Read on for a discussion of this complex area of the law, and if you are hurt in a slip and fall, trip and fall, or some other injury on another’s property in Los Angeles or Southern California, call Machtinger Law for a free consultation to review your case with a dedicated and successful California personal injury lawyer.

Californians Have a General Duty Not to Harm Others

California’s general negligence law imposes one broad obligation on all people not to harm others through negligent or intentional acts. One who does harm another is liable to pay monetary damages for the victim’s injuries, provided the victim can prove another caused their injuries through negligence. California’s negligence law, found in Civil Code section 1714, broadly states:

“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.”

By making “everyone” responsible for injuring “another” through negligent management of their property, California law makes no distinction among invitees, licensees, or trespassers.

But Trespassing Is Illegal

Trespassing is defined in section 602 of the California Penal Code as “willfully…entering upon lands or buildings owned by any other person without the license of the owner or legal occupant, where signs forbidding trespass are displayed…” Trespassing in such a way is a misdemeanor offense. It is committed when one “willfully enters” another’s property without their consent despite the existence of signs forbidding trespass.

Section 602 is a criminal law, not a civil law. It imposes criminal penalties for trespassing (fines and possible jail time), but it says nothing about whether a trespasser could sue after suffering an injury because of a hazardous condition on another’s property.

It would appear, therefore, that property owners still have a general duty to keep their property reasonably well-maintained for the safety of others on the property, including trespassers. This could include a duty to inspect the property periodically and either fix known hazards or post a warning about the danger. In a rural area, this could include unfenced and unmarked land with tripping hazards like ditches, stumps, or steep embankments. It might also include parts of a store that are marked off from public access as “employees only” or “no entry.” These areas of a store could have slipping and tripping hazards, items falling from shelves, oil, grease or water on the floor, etc. What if the door to a back area is clearly marked Private or Employees Only, but the door is propped open in such a way that the sign is obscured, and a customer wanders in looking for the bathroom, only to slip and fall or trip over a hazard? Likely a jury might find a trespasser at least partially to blame for being where they weren’t supposed to be when the accident happened, but nothing in the law would keep the property owner from being liable for their share of responsibility for the accident.

What About Attractive Nuisances?

In the law, an “attractive nuisance” is a hazardous condition that by its nature might invite the curiosity of a child who could be injured thereon. Swimming pools and trampolines are common examples of attractive nuisances. If they are visible to children from the street and are not properly fenced off, the property owner could be liable if a child wanders onto the property to play in the pool, on the trampoline or other play equipment and gets injured. Another example might be a construction site when a home is being constructed or undergoing renovations. The property might have a mound of earth piled up (and a hole in the ground where that dirt came from) which makes an attractive feature for children in the area to want to play on.

The rationale behind holding property owners liable for attractive nuisances is that children are lured onto the property by the attractive nuisance and don’t appreciate the risk the nuisance provides. States around the country recognize the doctrine of attractive nuisance as a legal principle to hold property owners liable. However, California courts have specifically declared that the Golden State no longer follows this doctrine. Attractive nuisances have not been the law of the land in California since the 1970 case of Beard v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co. The parent of an injured child in this situation would need to prove the property owner was negligent in maintaining the premises in order to hold the property owner liable.

Reach Out Today for Experienced Representation and Trusted Advice for Your Premises Liability Claim in Los Angeles or Orange County

If you or a loved one was seriously hurt in a slip and fall, trip and fall, or another incident on someone else’s property in Los Angeles or Orange County, call Machtinger Law for advice and representation from a dedicated and successful Southern California premises liability attorney.


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