You probably already know that homeowners insurance protects you in the event of theft by paying to replace property stolen from your home up to the policy limits.
Homeowners insurance also includes “premises liability,” which can cover some personal injury lawsuits that arise when a visitor to your property is injured and you are found at fault for those injuries.
But say a burglar breaks a window in the back of your home with plans to steal your belongings. And, after he finds a way inside, injures himself and sues you for these injuries. While it may sound like a far-fetched scenario, the truth is, it does happen.
As a homeowner, it is essential that you understand your rights and what you can be held liable for in the event of a break-in.
When Are You Liable?
Whether you are liable for another person’s injuries on your property varies in different states and usually depends on whether the visitor is a licensee, invitee or trespasser.
Invitees and Licensees
An invitee is an individual a homeowner invites onto their property for any legal purpose, including hired business contractors or a member of the public invited onto the property for an event like a yard sale. Once a homeowner welcomes or implies welcome to these individuals, the homeowner is responsible for taking steps to keep the area safe and minimize injury of the invitee.
A licensee is an individual who has permission from the homeowner to be on the property, including friends, family and other social guests. A homeowner is required to take reasonable care to keep licensees from known dangers on their property. For instance, if your porch railing is broken and a licensee is injured from it; you can be held liable for their injuries.
Burglars fall into the trespasser category of individuals that don’t have permission to enter a homeowner’s property. In most cases, homeowners have no responsibility to protect these individuals from potential injury and are not liable for their injuries on the premises.
However, there are a few exceptions to this rule: If a homeowner causes injury through a physical attack, the use of a weapon, setting a trap for intruders, ignoring signs of a frequent intruder or not posting about a serious hazard on the property (i.e., a 10-foot ditch in the yard), they can be held liable for a trespasser’s injuries.
Reduce Your Likelihood of Liability
To minimize your likelihood of liability for a burglar’s unwelcomed visit, take the following precautions:
- Post signs saying private property or no trespassing. Many state laws define a trespasser as an individual that knowingly enters private property. Without signs, they can deny knowing it was private property.
- Never booby trap your property. If a trap you set to catch a burglar causes injury, you can be held liable, and the burglar can file a personal injury lawsuit.
- Fix known safety hazards quickly. Depending on the severity of the hazard, it is beneficial to fix them quickly for all visitors.
- Report signs of intruders to local authorities. Once you notice signs of somebody on your property, you become liable for their injuries. Reporting these signs confirms the intruder is unwelcomed and initiates an investigation.
- Don’t shoot a gun randomly at the individual. Shooting a gun to instill fear with no real target is irresponsible and places others in the area at risk for harm.
- Don’t use any deadly force to make a burglar leave. State laws generally don’t excuse the use of deadly force to protect property, just personal safety.
- Consider using a burglar alarm. Many alarms are wired to notify authorities of the potential invasions and decrease your need to take action against intruders.
When Does Homeowners Insurance Deny Coverage?
The primary purpose for buying homeowners insurance is to have financial protection when a claim occurs. There are instances where homeowners insurance companies can deny coverage for personal liability claims depending on the reason the individual was on your property.
Some reasons companies can deny claims include:
- You are involved in illegal activities on the premises.
- They discover you have an illegal weapon.
- They uncover that you conduct business activity out of your home.
Insurance is meant to protect you from unexpected incidents, and homeowners insurance policies exclude illegal and business activity.
It isn’t likely that a burglar can hold you liable for injuries they acquire during a burglary.
However, it is vital that you understand what decisions could make you responsible for their injuries and avoid these to protect your financial well-being and reputation.
Maxime Rieman is Product Manager at ValuePenguin. Educating and assisting shoppers about financial products has been Rieman's focus, which led her to joining ValuePenguin, a consumer research and advice company based in New York. Previously, she was product marketing director at CoverWallet and launched the personal insurance team at NerdWallet.
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