Avoiding house sitter hazards and other legal troubles while you travel

Real estate, Money

The busiest travel season of the year is here, and many Americans will soon be on their way to obligatory family gatherings near and far. Many arrange for mail pickup, some arrange to have houseplants watered, but few consider the legal havoc that can ensue when a home is left unattended or – even worse – in the hands of a neglectful house sitter. Here we explore possible scenarios, many of which fall under the category of premises liability, that could create legal trouble for you and your family while you are away.

Injuries on your property

Let’s say you go away for a week, a snowstorm hits while you’re gone, and none of your friendly neighbors take the initiative to shovel your sidewalks or walkways. Then the neighborhood kids decide your unplowed driveway looks like an ideal sledding spot, and 30 kids line up to take a turn on your powder-packed ice luge. What happens when one breaks his arm after careening into a tree? Are you liable for the hospital bills and his parents’ missed time from work?

Probably not. In general, a property owner is liable for injuries occurring on his property stemming from known dangerous conditions. However, this principle does not apply to trespassers, and you are generally under no duty to protect outsiders from hazardous conditions on your land. An exception can occur under the “ which outlines a property owner’s responsibility if the trespasser is a child. However, in this case, you are still likely not liable as you had no way of knowing children were planning a sledding party in your driveway in your absence.

No-trespassing signs may be helpful in this scenario but really aren’t necessary. If a person wanders into your front yard uninvited and is injured on your property, you’re not on the hook.

The wayward house sitter 

Let’s try a new scenario. Your friends down the street have a 17-year-old daughter they swear is a saint, so you decide to pay her a couple bucks to watch your house for the week. You instruct her to water your poinsettia, retrieve the mail and monitor the cat, who is totally offended. But one evening, the house sitter forgets to extinguish a couple candles she lit, resulting in a small but contained house fire. The only problem is that you live in a townhouse, and the small fire burned through the wall, damaging the neighbor’s living room. Are you liable for this mishap, even though you were 1,200 miles away from home?

Possibly. The house sitter may be considered an independent contractor, even though you likely do not have a formal, signed agreement. While homeowners are not generally liable for the misdeeds of independent contractors, there is a separate cause of action known as negligent entrustment, which works to hold the hiring party liable for the misdeeds of hired help if the employer knew, or should have known, that the individual was irresponsible or had a history of causing damage or injury.

Like many personal injury cases, it will depend upon the unique facts of the case. But, in our scenario, the homeowner could face liability if a court concludes that no reasonable person would have entrusted this teenager with their home and its contents for a week.

How to avoid legal troubles while you travel 

It goes without saying that the easiest way to avoid long-distance disaster is to stick close to home this holiday season. But where’s the fun in that? To best protect your home from inattentive house sitters and potential damage, be sure to only leave your home in the hands of someone you trust implicitly.

Not feeling completely comfortable with the neighborhood tween? As the homeowner, you are well within your rights to install video-only nanny cams to monitor the activities of in-home help. Audio recordings are a little different, with “two-party states” requiring that all parties consent to being audio recorded.

In some cases, having video records will prove well worth the investment.