A recent decision granted a judgment to a neighbor for a fire in Santa Clara County. The plaintiff owned several original documents written by Albert Einstein; the plaintiff’s father & Einstein were friends. To go through the papers, the plaintiff had brought them to his get-away trailer parked on rural land near Henry Coe State Park. The defendants were co-owners of the 400 acre property where the fire started. On this property they had a 55 gallon drum they used as a burn barrel. The naughty party started a trash fire in the barrel, left it unattended, and started the 48,000 acre Lick fire.
There were numerous owners of the 400 acres; one defendant, who suffered a $750,000 judgment, owned only 2% and claims he did not know he owned an interest until he was served with the lawsuit. Apparently the jury was convinced that all the owners were aware of the burn barrel and the dangerous condition it created, and that owners other than the fire-starter should be liable.
What are the legal principals involved in such a decision? As summarized in a 1955 decision, Reid & Sibell v. Gilmore & Edwards, the general rule is that ‘A possessor of land is required to make reasonable use of his premises which causes no unreasonable harm to those in the vicinity, either by reason of the character of the use itself or because of the manner in which it is conducted.’ A landowner has a right to be free of unreasonable risk in the enjoyment of his property. This places a duty on others to not cause such unreasonable risk. Here, a finding that the fire starter acted negligently established that the risk of interfering with the neighbor was unreasonable.
How can a landowner avoid this kind of liability surprise? Of course fire safety is the obvious answer; but this case had the aspect of the co-owner who did not know he owned any interest in the property. This is the likely result of several generations of inheritance. As each generation passed, the succeeding generations inherited smaller and smaller fractionalized interests. Part of clearing an estate includes contacting all express and potential heirs; maybe this owner did not pay attention to a notification he received, or perhaps the estate administration was sloppy. Though a deed must be “accepted” by the grantee to be effective, but once it is recorded it can be presumed effective, unless there is evidence otherwise. An experienced California Real Estate Attorney might make such an argument in this situation. This case just shows it is important to pay attention to who your relatives are, and what is going on when they pass away.