Who is Responsible for Injuries on Jointly Owned Property? (Civ. Code § 1714)

underwood-responsible-injuries-joint-property-300x300Generally, every owner of property is liable for injuries on their property when it is not in a reasonably safe condition. (Cody F. v. Falletti (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 1232.) If a party was a coowner and jointly in possession of the premises, they would be equally responsible for the condition of the premises and equally liable for injury. (Mayo v. White (1986) 178 Cal.App.3d 1083. 

Civil Code section 1714 states that everyone is responsible 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.

Even if someone has a small interest in the property and they exercise no control over the management of the property, they still will be liable. (Davert v. Larson (1985) 163 Cal.App.3d 407.) This is because the courts believe relieving individual owners in common of liability would eliminate any motivation of any party to exercise due care in the management and control of commonly owned property. (Id.) Therefore, owners may then be found to be “jointly and severally liable” for a person’s injury. 

What is Joint and Several Liability?

Joint and several liability is a doctrine in which a tortfeasor(s) (in this case property owners) are liable for any injury of which their negligence is a proximate cause. Each tortfeasor is personally liable for the damage sustained, and the injured person may sue one or all of the tortfeasors to obtain a recovery for his injuries. (Am. Motorcycle Assn. v. Super. Ct. (1978) 20 Cal.3d 578).

Courts have applied joint and several liability to contexts in which a pre-existing relationship made it appropriate to hold one person liable for the act of the other. (Id.) These instances include situations in which joint owners of a property owed a duty to some third party. (Id.)

How does a Person’s Ownership Status Affect Liability?

The test applied to assess the liability of a landowner when someone is injured is whether in the management of their property, they acted as a “reasonable man” in the view of probability of injury to others. (Martin v. Barclay Distribg. Co. (1970) 13 Cal.App.3d 828.) The injured party’s status as a trespasser, licensee, or invitee may affect the question of liability, but the status is not determinative. (Id.)

When someone is on property that is not their own, depending on the circumstances, they fall under a certain status in relation to their presence there. A trespasser is a person who enters or remains upon land of another without a privilege (permission) to do so. (Oettinger v. Stewart (1944) 24 Cal.2d 133.) A licensee is a person who is like a social guest who is not an invitee and who is privileged to enter or remain on the property by the owner’s consent. (Id.) An invitee is a business visitor who is invited or permitted to enter property for a purpose directly connected with that business. (Id.)

If someone is an invitee, the property owners owe a duty to exercise ordinary care to avoid injuring the invitee. (Id.) For a trespasser or licensee however, they are obliged to take the property as it is in relation to any alleged defective condition, and the owner has a duty to refrain from wanton or willful injury. (Id.) So even if a co-owner only has a 10 percent interest in the property, they owe the same duties to an invitee, licensee, or trespasser as the co-owner with a 90 percent interest. 

An Example

“Shawn” and his sister “Stacy” are joint owners of their house. Shawn lives in the home and owns an 80 percent interest in the home. Stacy does not live in the home and owns a 20 percent interest in the home. Shawn realizes that the step leading to their doorway is bending and sinking due to the age of the wood and mentions it to Stacy. They both agree that although it needs to be fixed, they don’t have the time to fix it right now and they can just jump over sinking step. 

“Julie” is a mailwoman who works in Shawn and Stacy’s neighborhood. As she goes to deliver the mail at Shawn and Stacy’s house in front of the home where the mailbox lies, she steps on the sinking step. The step breaks in half and Julie is severely injured. She sues both Shawn and Stacy for damages resulting from her injuries. 

Stacy attempts to argue that she has a small interest in the home and the maintenance of the house is Shawn’s responsibility, so she did not owe Julie any duty of care. However, Stacy’s interest and control of the property did not matter. As a landowner, she owed a duty to manage the property as much as her brother. Therefore, the jury found Julie to be an invitee and that Shawn and Stacy did not exercise ordinary care by failing to fix the step or place a sign warning people about the step. As such, the jury awarded Julie damages, and Shawn and Stacy were jointly and severally liable. 

How Can the Attorneys at the Underwood Law Firm Assist You?

Homeowners are expected to maintain their property in a way that does not harm them or anyone that enters the property. Even if a person does not live there or only owns a small percentage of the property, they still will be held liable if a person gets injured on their property. As such, each co-owner of property must ensure that it is reasonably safe. 

If a co-owner is not amenable to fixing problems when they arise, then an owner would be well-served to end their co-ownership relationship. At the Underwood Law Firm, our knowledgeable attorneys are here to help. If you are seeking to end a toxic co-ownership relationship, do not hesitate to contact us.

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