If someone trespasses onto another’s land and is injured will the landowner be held liable for damages? It’s a difficult question that has a variety of rationales for both sides of the issue. The answer could be yes, but only in limited circumstances.
In October 1998, 15 year old Hunter Racine was tragically killed after he trespassed onto the industrial property of the Goldwasser Moving and Storage Company at River Road and St. George Avenue in Jefferson Parish. Hunter, his brother Logan, and two friends entered the unfenced property without permission. First, they climbed onto an elevated tank tower and dropped pumpkins and a bowling ball onto parked trucks below. Then Hunter left temporarily and the others found an unattended locked truck with the keys in the ignition. Logan climbed in the passenger window and started the engine. For some reason the engine wouldn’t turn off and the car remained running, not moving, for several minutes. When Hunter returned he jumped on the running board of the truck, reached through the driver window, and attempted to shut it off. Suddenly the truck jumped into gear and began moving forward. Hunter was killed when he was trapped between the fence and the moving truck.
Racine’s family brought a lawsuit against Goldwasser (and others) alleging three different liability theories: attractive nuisance, strict liability, and negligence. Goldwasser filed a motion for summary judgment which was originally denied but then granted in the Louisiana Supreme Court’s 2002 reconsideration. The decision provides a good explanation of these three legal theories as they relate to landowner liability.
Under the Attractive Nuisance doctrine, a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children who trespass on their land when the injury is caused by a hazardous object or condition on the land likely to attract children. Some examples of an attractive nuisance include trampolines and swimming pools. The doctrine is in place to protect children who are unable to appreciate the risks they encounter.
While an unattended truck with keys in the ignition may seem to be an attractive nuisance, under Louisiana law the doctrine is typically only applied to children of a “tender age,” not older children. The court found that Hunter, Logan, and the two other teenagers were old enough to know what they were doing was wrong and appreciate the dangers of their actions.
Strict liability is liability that is imposed regardless of fault. No finding of negligence is required. Strict liability is reserved for situations that are so dangerous that the plaintiff need only prove they were injured and the defendant was responsible. Good faith and precautions taken are not a defense.
Here the plaintiffs alleged that the truck parked on the property with keys in the ignition was an unreasonably dangerous condition. However, under Louisiana law it is well settled that the “mere act of leaving keys in a vehicle does not make the owner of the vehicle liable for injuries caused by someone who uses that vehicle without authorization.”
Negligence is behavior that falls below the appropriate standard of care for a particular situation. The plaintiffs allege that Goldwasser was negligent because the malfunctioning truck was parked on the property and no effort was made to immobilize it. The court did not buy this argument because no legal authority was provided to indicate that parking a mechanically impaired vehicle on private property is negligence. The park truck itself did not pose unreasonable risk. There would have been no harm but for the teenagers’ decisions to sneak on the property, break in the car, and start the engine.
The lessons from this case are clear. Proving landowner liability is very difficult. The age of the person injured or killed, the relationship between the parties, and any intervening acts of the plaintiffs that caused the injury are all important factors that will be taken into account. In addition, legal authority must be found to back up all of the claims made in the lawsuit.