An open house is a great way to show a property to multiple people at the same time and potentially generate offers in the moment. However, if a guest at your open house is injured on the property, the real estate agent and homeowner might find themselves the target of a lawsuit.
Hazards are common around the home
Hazards exist everywhere, but sometimes the worst ones are right in your own home. For example, according to Dolman Law, the most common slip-and-fall hazards in the home include:
- Uneven stairs or flooring
- Cracked pavement
- Poorly placed fixtures
- No handrails
- Broken floor tiles
- Inadequate lighting
Such hazards can cause serious injuries even to longtime occupants of the residence. So they can also cause serious injuries to prospective home buyers during an open house.
In fact, prospective buyers are more likely to suffer an injury because they are unfamiliar with the space. So if an open house guest is injured, who is responsible?
The guest? The homeowner? The real estate agent? The answer depends on the situation, but generally speaking, property owners are responsible for injuries that happen on their property.
Homeowners are responsible for open house guest injuries
When real estate agents show a home during an open house, homeowners are ultimately responsible for any injuries. Homeowners have a duty to prevent harm to visitors by eliminating hazards if at all possible.
If a homeowner allows his or her home to be shown when there’s a major hazard on the premises, and someone gets injured, the owner could be sued for negligence. In the case of a hazard that can’t be fixed, homeowners are legally required to warn visitors about the potential danger.
Sometimes, warning guests of an obvious and avoidable hazard can be sufficient, but not always. For example, if your gardener trips over a box you left in the middle of a walkway, you could still be held liable for his injuries even after you warned him about the box.
In this case, your homeowners insurance policy should cover the cost of the medical bills and additional damages.
Sellers agents are also responsible for open house guest injuries
Both homeowners and sellers’ agents are responsible for inspecting, fixing, and issuing warnings about hazards around a property. The rationale is that a seller’s agent should have some reasonable control of the property while hosting an open house.
When someone has reasonable control, her or she automatically assumes responsibility. Seller’s agents aren’t completely responsible for a guest’s safety, but they are legally required to take reasonable steps to identify and fix hazards within their control.
For example, if a step is barely visible in the middle of the living room covered in carpet, the homeowner or agent who shows the house ought to rope it off to avoid a mishap. Real estate agents can be held liable in court for failing to warn guests of such a hazard.
There are exceptions, such as when a guest helps to create the hazard by his own actions. In this type of situation, a homeowner or real estate agent may be held partially liable rather than fully liable.
This would be regarded as comparative negligence, which is a common factor in car-crash lawsuits.
What is comparative negligence?
Comparative negligence works by assigning a percentage of blame to each party, which determines the amount of damages each side will be required to pay. For example, a real estate agent might be found 15% responsible for an accident and would therefore be required to pay 15% of the total damages awarded.
What if an open house guest causes his or her own accident?
It’s possible for a guest to be held fully responsible for injuries suffered in an accident if the individual behaved recklessly and there was no identifiable hazard prior to the reckless actions. For instance, if a guest pulls a rope out of his back pocket and uses it to swing from a tree in the backyard, falls, and breaks an arm, it’s unlikely that anyone else would be held liable for the injury.
However, if a rope was already hanging from the tree when the guest swung on it, fell, and broke an arm, the homeowner and/or seller’s agent would more likely be held responsible, at least to some degree.
Liability can be complicated, and that’s why you need insurance
If you’re a homeowner, you need homeowners insurance to cover injuries suffered by open-house guests. Medical bills can skyrocket quickly; if you have to pay out of pocket for someone else’s injuries, you’ll probably go broke.
So if you host an open house, make sure your agent warns guests about any potential hazards. Supply your agent with a list of known hazards and fix as many as possible prior to the event.
You can’t avoid all lawsuits, but you can dodge the worst-case scenarios.