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Who is Responsible for Injuries on Jointly Owned Property?

Understanding the responsibilities of co-owners can help you protect yourself in cases where negligent ownership causes injuries to your real property. The general legal principle is that co-owners are liable for injuries on jointly owned property regardless of whether the injury is a result of willful actions or lack of ordinary care when managing the property. This principle underscores the legal expectation for property owners to exercise due diligence in preventing injury. In this article, the highly experienced partition attorneys at Talkov Law explain the legal precedents and doctrines that outline how and when co-owners can be held responsible for damages arising from accidents or injuries on jointly owned property.

Liability of Co-Owners

California law provides for the liability of all owners of property for intentional acts and negligence as follows:

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.

Civil Code § 1714(a)

As to co-ownership, courts have explained that a “coowner [who is] jointly in possession of the premises, would be equally responsible for the condition of the premises and could not be held liable for injury to the other.”[1]Mayo v. White (1986) 178 Cal. App. 3d 1083, 1085.

By implication, this would suggest that co-owners out of possession may have a defense to liability. However, co-owners out of possession who abandon their property or otherwise fail to exercise ordinary care may nonetheless the liable.

What is Joint and Several Liability?

Oftentimes, an injured party will seek to hold multiple parties who committed a tort (known as tortfeasors) liable for their monetary damages.

“[T]he principle that each tortfeasor is personally liable for any indivisible injury of which his negligence is a proximate cause has commonly been expressed in terms of “joint and several liability.”[2]Am. Motorcycle Assn. v. Superior Ct. (1978) 20 Cal. 3d 578, 586. Moreover, “each tortfeasor is thus personally liable for the damage sustained”.[3]Am. Motorcycle Assn. v. Superior Ct. (1978) 20 Cal. 3d 578, 587. Thus, when an injury occurs on property that is owned by more than one owner, the injured party may sue each owner in a jointly and severable manner.

Co-Owners Can be Held Liable for Injuries on the Property

Even if a co-owner has a 33% interest in the co-owned property and they exercise no control over the jointly owned property, they can still be held liable for any injuries on their property.

The reasoning is that owners owe “a duty of care to persons who come on [their] property as well as to persons off the property for injuries due to the landowner’s lack of due care in the management of [their] property.[4]Davert v. Larson (1985) 163 Cal.App. 3d 407, 410. As the court explained: “Generally, the duty owed by a landowner is nondelegable.” [5]Davert v. Larson (1985) 163 Cal.App.3d 407, 410. In one case, the co-owner argued “that he owed plaintiffs no duty of care because his interest in the property (1/2500) is small and he exercised no control over the management of the property,” relying on case law where a party “owned a condominium and 1/60 undivided interest in the common areas” where someone was injured. [6]Davert v. Larson (1985) 163 Cal.App.3d 407, 410 The court reasoned as follows:

It is clear that considerations of public policy require that any departure from the common law rule of liability of individual owners of property in common cannot operate to the substantial detriment of third parties. Since California law does not require insurance to protect third parties in the case of common area torts, relieving individual owners in common of liability would eliminate any motivation on the part of any party to exercise due care in the management and control of commonly owned property and could leave third parties with no remedy at law.

Therefore, we believe that tenants in common of real property who delegate the control and management of the property to a separate legal entity should not be immunized from liability to third parties for tortious conduct.

Davert v. Larson (1985) 163 Cal.App.3d 407, 412–413.

Does Ownership Status Affect a Person’s Liability?

The landmark case Martin v. Barclay Distrib. Co. shows that an individual’s liability in managing their property hinges on whether they acted with the diligence of a reasonable person, especially in terms of foreseeing and preventing potential harm to others. Specifically, “[t]he proper test to be applied to the liability of the possessor of land in accordance with section 1714 of the Civil Code is whether in the management of his property he has acted as a reasonable man in view of the probability of injury to others, and, although the plaintiff’s status as a trespasser, licensee, or invitee may in the light of the facts giving rise to such status have some bearing on the question of liability, the status is not determinative.”[7]Martin v. Barclay Distrib. Co. (1970) 13 Cal. App. 3d 828, 831. Regardless of whether you own 5% or 95% of a property, an owner’s diligence to act like a reasonable person who may foresee and prevent potential harm to others on the property’s premises does not change.

Example of Joint and Several Liability

Alex and his cousin Liam co-own a lake cabin, with Alex residing there and holding a 75% interest, while Liam, living elsewhere, holds the remaining 25%. Aware of a loose dock plank, they postpone repairs, considering it a minor risk. Eva, who is a friend of Alex and Liam, was invited to join Alex and Liam at the cabin one summer day when Eva walks on the dock where the plank gives way, causing her injury. Eva sues Alex and Liam. Despite Liam’s minimal ownership and non-residence, both Alex and Liam would be responsible for ensuring the property’s safety, deeming Eva a licensee owed due care, leading to Alex and Liam’s potential joint liability for her injuries.

Talkov Law’s Partition Attorneys Can Help

Navigating the complexities of property co-ownership and the responsibilities that come with it can be daunting, especially when it pertains to injuries occurring on the property. Whether you’re facing potential liability issues or disputes over the management and safety of jointly owned property, understanding your legal standing and options is crucial. Talkov Law’s team of experienced attorneys specializing in partition actions are ready to guide co-owners through these challenges. Our firm’s expertise encompasses the nuances of joint and several liability, ensuring that our clients are both protected and compliant with California’s legal standards.

For co-owners embroiled in disputes or concerned about their liability for injuries on their property, Talkov Law offers unparalleled legal representation and advice. Talkov law unlocks access to justice for co-owners by funding your case. For qualified cases, you pay no fees until we successfully partition your property by obtaining a sale on the market or to your co-owner! Our commitment to achieving the best possible outcomes for our clients is evidenced by our success in handling over 260 partition actions. Call (844) 4-TALKOV (825568) or contact us online to schedule your free, 15-minute consultation with Talkov Law.

References

References
1 Mayo v. White (1986) 178 Cal. App. 3d 1083, 1085.
2 Am. Motorcycle Assn. v. Superior Ct. (1978) 20 Cal. 3d 578, 586.
3 Am. Motorcycle Assn. v. Superior Ct. (1978) 20 Cal. 3d 578, 587.
4 Davert v. Larson (1985) 163 Cal.App. 3d 407, 410.
5 Davert v. Larson (1985) 163 Cal.App.3d 407, 410.
6 Davert v. Larson (1985) 163 Cal.App.3d 407, 410
7 Martin v. Barclay Distrib. Co. (1970) 13 Cal. App. 3d 828, 831.
Attorney Colleen Sparks
About Colleen Talkov

Colleen Talkov is a Partition Attorney at Talkov Law in California. She can be reached at (844) 4-TALKOV (825568) or colleen@talkovlaw.com.

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