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Property owners may be liable to trespassers in some cases

Most Virginia property owners want to be the ones to decide who can come onto their property and when. However, many property owners must also deal with the possibility or risk of trespassers. When a trespasser enters a person's property and is injured by a dangerous condition, it's possible for the property owner to be held liable for damages under the legal theory of premises liability. These cases are relatively rare, however. The key questions in determining whether the property owner will be held liable concern the likelihood or frequency of trespassing.

Generally, courts find that property owners are not liable to trespassers for injuries suffered during the trespassing. This legal principle exists because courts do not expect that property owners will or should anticipate the possibility that people will trespass on their private property. In addition, property owners may have all kinds of intended uses for their properties or may not inspect certain kinds of properties regularly. Therefore, they may be unaware of specific dangerous conditions and feel that any potential condition is not especially dangerous since no one is expected to be on the property.

However, property owners should know that there are exceptions to the rule that can result in a property owner being held liable for a trespasser's injuries. One of these exceptions is when trespassing on a certain property is a regular and known occurrence. This may happen, for example, when people regularly cut through a person's property in order to get to their intended destination. When property owners know that trespassing regularly occurs and that a dangerous property condition exists, liability can attach if the property owner does not sufficiently warn trespassers of the dangerous condition. Such warning can generally be achieved by posting a sign in a visible location.

Another exception to the general rule involves willful and wanton conduct by the property owner. This exception relates to a property owner who takes an action that results in a dangerous condition or intentionally creates a dangerous condition, despite knowing that people frequently trespass on the property. In this situation, even a warning about the dangerous property condition could be insufficient to prevent the property owner from being held liable.

Source: FindLaw.com, "Property Owners' Legal Duty to Prevent Injury," accessed Aug. 6, 2014

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