In California, property owners are liable if they fail to maintain property that they own or if they allow a hazard to exist on their property, explains a personal injury lawyer in the state. Recently, one California couple settled with their neighbor for $6 million after a fire started on the neighbor’s property and caused the couple to suffer severe burns. The case raises questions related to California premises liability law.
Referred to as the Tea Garden, the neighbor’s property had a number of different abandoned structures and outbuildings that teenagers routinely used to start bonfires. One such fire became out of control and spread next door to the home of Lance and Carla Hoffman. Unfortunately, as the couple tried to escape, they suffered third degree burns. The Hoffmans were not the only ones to suffer adverse consequences. In total, 210 homes were destroyed and 25 people were injured due to the fire.
The Hoffmans took action. They filed a lawsuit against the teenagers who started the fire, as well as against the landlord of the home they were renting. They also filed suit against the owners of the Tea Garden.
Liability for the Fire
The basis of the Hoffmans’ argument was that the owners of the Tea Garden knew or should have known that the teenagers gathered to build bonfires on their property. Since the owners allegedly knew of these bonfires and of the risk the fires created, the Hoffmans believed the owners were negligent in not taking action to deal with the danger. In effect, failure to react to the trespassing and fire setting was the equivalent of any other negligent property maintenance, such as failure to fix a gas leak or failure to fix faulty wires.
While the case the Hoffmans brought against the property owners of the Tea Garden will not be heard in court as it settled for $6 million in damages, it raises a number of potential legal issues regarding whether the alleged negligence of the Tea Garden owners was responsible for causing injury to the Hoffmans.
In order for a person to be liable for an injury on the basis of negligence, the person’s negligent actions must have been a direct or proximate cause of foreseeable injury. The big issue that arises in this case, then, is that the direct cause of the injury was not the negligence of the property owners (like it would have been if a gas leak started a fire) but was instead the intentional action of the teenagers who started the fire that led to the injury.
This action of the teenagers might be referred to as an intervening illegal act. In many cases, an intervening illegal act “breaks the chain of causation” necessary for liability (i.e. makes it so that the intervening act is the cause and not the negligence). California courts, however, have historically held property owners liable in cases in which an intervening illegal act caused or contributed to the injury, as the owners are considered to have neglected to remedy the potentially dangerous situation before a crime or harmful event could occur.
In the Tea Garden fire case, the property owners apparently knew that fires were being set on their property. Burn injuries were a foreseeable result of the fires. The intervening acts of the teens were not superseding causes that absolved the property owners of their liability, since it was the property owner’s very act of not stopping these fires that made them negligent and that led to harm.
The case against the Tea Garden owners, therefore, is likely one in which the liability of the property owners was clear. The fact that the owners settled the case is an indicator that they too knew that the California courts would likely hold them liable.
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