Washington Landowner Not Liable for Hazards on Others’ Property

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Property owners may be liable for injuries that result from a dangerous condition on their property.  The duty a property owner owes to a person on his or her property regarding a dangerous condition of the property often turns on the status of the injured person.  A landowner has different obligations to business invitees, licensees, and trespassers.  A Washington appeals court recently considered whether a landowner can be liable in a Washington premises liability case if the dangerous condition is actually on someone else’s property.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, an eight-year-old girl drowned while camping as part of a youth group.  The landowner allowed the group to camp on the property for free for several years.  The property was near a lake, and four counselors took 15 children swimming at a cove on the lake.  To get to the cove, the group walked from the campsite across property owned by the federal government.  The appeals court described the victim as a “non-swimmer.” According to the opinion, the counselors lost track of her while caring for another child.  A search and rescue team found her body the next day.

The victim’s estate sued the landowners, alleging they had a duty to warn the child about the dangerous conditions in the cove.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding they did not have a duty to warn about conditions on property they did not own.  The estate appealed.

As in any negligence case, the plaintiff in a premises liability case must show the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, the defendant breached that duty, and the breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.  In a premises liability case, the scope of the landowner’s duty depends on the status of the injured person.  In this case, the child was a “licensee,” or someone whom the landowner has consented to allow to enter or remain on the property.  Landowners have a duty not to willfully or wantonly injure a licensee, but do not have a duty to inspect the property for hidden dangers.  The landowner also has a duty to either make safe or warn a licensee of dangers that he or she knows or has reason to know of and of which the licensee is not reasonably likely to discover.  A property owner also has a duty to maintain the property so “an abutting public way is safe for ordinary travel.”

The estate argued the defendant owed the child the more extensive duties that would be owed to a business invitee.  The appeals court distinguished the present case from the case cited by the estate, Degel v. Majestic Mobile Manor, Inc. In Degel, the defendant was a mobile home park and the injured child was a tenant, and therefore a business invitee.  There was a play area on the property, with a steep embankment that led to a creek.  A child learning to ride a bike went down the embankment and into the creek.  The Washington Supreme Court found that a landowner who invites a child onto the property for business purposes has a duty to take reasonable precautions to make the property safe.

In the present case, however, the child was a licensee, not an invitee.  The cove where the incident occurred did not belong to the defendant.  Furthermore the water levels were controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation and the defendant had no way to make the property safer.  Additionally, in Degel, the Supreme Court focused on the condition of the slope, which was the defendant’s property, not the condition of the creek, which was not. In the present case, the hazardous condition was not on the defendants’ property and the appeals court found the condition of the defendants’ property did not contribute to the child’s drowning.

The appeals court found there was no duty to protect anyone from dangers on someone else’s property.  Landowners have liability for injuries on their property because they have superior knowledge about the dangers on the property and the ability to use the knowledge to take actions to prevent others from being injured.  Even if a defendant knows about a danger on someone else’s property, he or she does not have an ability to correct it.  The appeals court affirmed the summary judgment.

There may be a different result in a case where a hazard on the defendant’s property contributes to the injury.  If you or a loved one has been injured due to dangerous conditions on someone else’s property, an experienced Washington premises liability attorney can help you evaluate your case and identify potential sources of recovery for your injury.  Contact Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case.

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