According to some statistics, about 1 out of every 5 homes is vacant as the result of owners abandoning the properties once they went into foreclosure. Oftentimes, abandoned properties fall into disrepair, and many people have injured themselves as a result. Unfortunately, suing for compensation for injuries sustained on an abandoned property can be challenging. Here's what you're up against if you choose to sue the owner for a slip and fall injury you sustained while on the person's abandoned property.
Finding the Owner
One of the biggest challenges you'll face is actually finding out who owns the property. Depending on how long the property has been abandoned, it could have changed hands numerous times, be stuck in foreclosure limbo, or the owner could have passed away without any heirs.
Whether or not you can sue for damages will hinge on finding out who owns the abandoned property. For instance, if the government seized the property because of the owner's failure to pay property taxes, then you may have to contend with the government's immunity against certain types of lawsuits.
There are a couple of ways you can locate the owner of an abandoned home. A good place to start would be the county property and tax records. Using the property's address, you can typically look up who was the last registered owner of the property or who last paid the taxes on it. Be aware that the information may be outdated. However, sending a letter to the name on file with a forwarded-address request could result in a valuable lead to the information you need.
Another idea is to talk to the neighbors who live near the house to see if they know anything about the owners. This can be particularly helpful if the property has been abandoned for a long time. Older residents may remember the people that used to live there and at least give you a name to start your search.
A last option is to contract a skip-tracing service or private detective to do the research for you. While this option comes with a cost, it may be the fastest and most efficient way to find the owners. Since there is typically a statute of limitations that regulates how long you have to file a personal injury lawsuit, you can't really afford to waste a lot of time.
The next challenge involved in suing for injuries you sustained on an abandoned piece of property is establishing liability for the damages, and the first issue both the owners and the court will tackle is your reason for being on the property in the first place.
In general, owners only have a duty to keep the property safe for people who they invite to be on the premises. When it comes to trespassers, the duty of care required of property owners is limited to not purposefully or willfully causing injury (e.g. setting booby traps) and notifying people of dangerous conditions on the land if they know others frequently trespass on the property.
So to hold the property owner liable for your injuries, you'll have to show you were there with the owner's permission, the nature of your job automatically conferred permission (e.g. mail carriers, police), or something was happening on the property that required you to trespass to handle the issue (e.g. saving a child from injury).
Once you've established you were on the property lawfully, you'll need to pin the liability on the responsible party. Generally this shouldn't be a problem, as whoever's name is on the deed is the liable party. However, you may run into some difficulty if the property is, or has been, in foreclosure. While the property may be in the previous homeowner's name, some banks don't properly record the deeds when they're required to do so, which can cause you to target the wrong person with your lawsuit.
Additionally, banks who repossess foreclosed homes buy and sell those loans to other banks. So while one bank's name may be on the title, a totally different bank may actually own the property, and the related paperwork just hasn't been updated to reflect that.
In this situation, you'll likely need the assistance of an attorney who can sift through the paperwork to pinpoint who's liable for paying for your slip and fall injury. Therefore, if you were hurt while on an abandoned property, it's best to contact an attorney, like those at The Law Offices of Gregg Durlofsky, who can help you locate and sue the right person.