Monday, September 9, 2013
Landowner Can Be Liable to Neighbors for Fire Set by Trespassers, Court of Appeal Declares
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district on Friday held that a landowner was liable for a fire, apparently set on his property by trespassers, which spread to the premises next door.
Spurning the contention of the landowner, David Solomon, that he owed no duty to the residents on property adjacent to the lot on which his home was being constructed, Justice Elizabeth Grimes of Div. Eight said, in an unpublished opinion:
“There is no free pass on liability for injury occurring off site of the premises owned by a defendant.”
The jurist cited the California Supreme Court’s 1968 decision Rowland v. Christian which, she said, “established that the contemporary premises liability test is whether the landowner acted as a reasonable person in managing the property in view of the probability of injury to others.”
While she quoted the portion of the decision setting forth factors which need to be weighed in determining whether a landowner has breached duties to others—such as “the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct” and “the policy of preventing future harm”—she did not pinpoint the specific act or omission by Solomon which supported liability.
Duty to Warn
Grimes recited that Solomon contended he had no duty to warn the persons living next to his property of the occasional loitering of transients there because they were able to observe that for themselves. She wrote:
“Plaintiffs did not allege or try to prove defendant breached the duty to warn of a dangerous condition on his property. Instead, plaintiffs’ case rested on defendant’s duty to prevent the risk of fire on his property spreading to their property. As the duty to warn was not in dispute, the trial court committed no prejudicial error in refusing to instruct on that theory of liability.
“Defendant frames his arguments regarding premises liability as pure questions of law and presents no substantial evidence challenge as to liability, so we need not discuss the evidence supporting the jury’s findings that he was liable for plaintiffs’ injuries in this case.”
Grimes also found that the damages assessed— $12,883 to one of the next-door residents and $3,400 to another—to be supported by the evidence.
Solomon’s Lawyer Comments
Carlsbad attorney Arthur D. Hodge, who represented Solomon, said Friday that it was never established at trial that the fire started on Solomon’s property or that it was deliberately set. But if it was, in fact, set by trespassers, he remarked, the only way Solomon could have prevented the blaze would have been to hire “full-time security, 24 hours a day.”
He said the property was “fenced and locked.”
Hodge remarked that he respected the justices in Div. Eight, but felt his arguments were given “short shrift” in Grimes’ opinion.
The lawyer related that in light of damages being less than $20,000, review in the state Supreme Court is not apt to be sought.
“This probably is the end of the line,” he said.
Decision ‘Spot On’
Mid-Wilshire attorney Gabriel J. Pimentel of the Law Offices of Ramin R. Younessi, who represented the plaintiffs, Juan Chavez and his mother Maria Chavez, commented that Grimes’ decision was “spot on.”
He declared that Solomon “abandoned a property for a period of six months and left it in a neighborhood he knew” presented “the danger of vandalism.”
Pimentel asserted an owner of real property has a duty to “make sure nothing bad happens on it” that will create a danger which extends beyond the property’s boundaries. Some landowners “want to jerk neighbors around” by creating hazards and decline to pay for the harm done, the lawyer asserted, saying that he hopes Solomon has “learned his lesson” that the law does not permit this.
He responded to Hodge’s statement that Solomon’s property was fenced by insisting that the “fence was dilapidated,” in some places being along the ground.
The case is Chavez v. Solomon B240549. The decision is an affirmance for Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rose Hom.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company