Landowner's Legal Duty to Maintain Property In California

Landowners in California have a duty to maintain property that is in their possession and control in a reasonably safe condition. ( Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal. 2d 108, 119, 70 Cal. Rptr. 97, 443 P.2d 561.) If it is a foregone conclusion that landowners have a duty to exercise reasonable care to maintain their property in a safe condition, then what is the question of law regarding the existence of the landlord's duty, so regularly left to the courts? The question has perplexed many a court, leading to a confused body of law. We seek to answer the question clearly. to do so, we will first step back from the precise question presented here, to consider the question of duty in the broader context of tort law. to aid us in our overview of the subject, we look to Prosser and Keeton on Torts (5th ed. 1984). The law of torts "is concerned with the allocation of losses arising out of human activities . . . . '. . . the purpose of the law of torts is to adjust these losses, and to afford compensation for injuries sustained by one person as the result of the conduct of another.' " (Prosser & Keeton on Torts, supra, 1, p. 6.) When a defendant has not intended to interfere with a plaintiff's rights, and society has not deemed a defendant to be strictly liable for a plaintiff's injuries regardless of fault, liability will be determined under a negligence theory. (See id. at 7, pp. 31-32.) Put another way, " 'duty' is a question of whether the defendant is under any obligation for the benefit of the particular plaintiff; and in negligence cases, the duty is always the same--to conform to the legal standard of reasonable conduct in the light of the apparent risk." (Prosser & Keeton on Torts, supra, 53, p. 356.) Thus, for example, the law imposes upon the driver of a car an obligation to drive with reasonable care for the safety of others. If the driver fails to use reasonable care and injures another, he or she will be held liable. Of course, the question of what is reasonable will depend in each case upon the particular circumstances facing that driver, such as the foreseeability of the risk of harm, balanced against the extent of the burden of eliminating or mitigating that risk.