Who is liable for injuries due to neighbor's "over the top" light display?

by Jim
(Buellton, CA)

We live in an otherwise quiet neighborhood in a small rural California city. Last year new neighbors moved in across the street at the entrance to our cul-de-sac. They have an "over the top" holiday light display, synchronized to music which is broadcast over loudspeakers and radio.

It causes traffic to back up into the cul-de-sac and at the entrance street. At times, huge crowds (30 to 50 people) gather in front of our house and even in our driveway to view the display.

The new homeowners actively seek publicity for their 6 week light extravaganza in newspapers, in on-line media, and on local radio. They even give out free cider and cookies, dress up like Santa, and offer free photo ops with Mr. and Mrs. Claus to attract people.

We have repeatedly complained about traffic to both him and to the city manager/council because it regularly blocks access to our home and even to the cul-de-sac. The city refuses to do anything because the lights do not violate any city ordinances. However, I believe this to be an unlicensed special event over which the city does have jurisdiction.

I am concerned that this will eventually result in a pedestrian injury (or worse) due to the chaotic mix of distracted drivers and pedestrians. I am particularly concerned over people being injured on our property as they view the event across the street. I don't want to be viewed as Scrooge by asking them to leave or calling the police, but I fear we are opening ourselves up to liability if we do not.

When the inevitable injury occurs, where will liability fall? To the neighbors for not controlling the chaos they create? To the city for doing nothing? To us if we do not intervene with trespassers? Is there anything we can do here? Thank you.

Visitor Question:
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ANSWER for "Who is liable for injuries due to neighbor's "over the top" light display?":

Jim (Buellton, CA):

You are in a precarious position. While you haven't invited the onlookers onto your property, it is difficult to call them trespassers. They impliedly are legally on your property. They might be considered in the same category as neighbors, friends, mail carriers, and similar persons who might step into your property.

Persons like this are referred to under the law as "licensees." Licensees are persons who are on your property legally, where, as a homeowner, you have no expectation of financial gain.

Unfortunately, in your case, the Christmas scene onlookers may also be considered licensees. While you didn't specifically and overtly invite the onlookers onto your property, it is reasonable to assume the onlookers might step on your property. As a result, you have a legal "duty of care" to be sure those persons legally upon your property, like licensees, aren't unduly harmed or injured.

However, your legal duty is only to do everything within reason to make your property safe for those persons who are legally upon it. As a homeowner, this would include making sure there aren't items which normally wouldn't be on a homeowner's property, and by their very nature are inherently dangerous.

This might include pointed and exposed landscaping sticks, electrified fencing, unrestrained attack dogs, and other items which would not be considered customary for a homeowner's property.

While you may have a legal duty to keep your property safe for licenses, the same duty doesn't apply to trespassers.

Cornell University Law School defines "trespass" as:

"...the act of knowingly entering another person’s property without permission. Such action is held to infringe upon a property owner’s legal right to enjoy the benefits of ownership."

There may be a reasonably simple solution to your concern over liability issues for onlookers who may be injured on your property. While it may be distasteful to you, make or purchase a sign large enough for onlookers to see which states:

Please keep off our property. We will consider anyone on our property to be trespassing.

With that said and done, you should be protected against liability for those onlookers who trespass. There is a caveat...

Once you place the sign out it may serve to keep persons such as mail carriers, neighbors, friends, and others who would normally be on your property from coming onto your property, fearing they may be considered trespassers.

To avoid this, at least for the duration of the holidays, contact your neighbors, friends, and even the mail carrier, and tell them the sign does not apply to them.

The above is general information. Laws change frequently, and across jurisdictions. You should get a personalized case evaluation from an attorney licensed in your state. Find a local attorney to give you a free case review here, or call (888) 647-2490.

Best of luck,

Judge Calisi

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