CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that would ensure property owners face very limited liability from trespassers on their land.
In general, common law states that property owners cannot be sued by trespassers unless they recklessly or willfully injure the trespasser. The bill would lock that common law into written legislation.
The bill is in response to a recent publication of the non-binding but very influential American Law Institute. That publication, "Restatement of Torts, Third,'' dissolves some of the legal distinctions between trespassers and regular invitees. It would protect property owners against suit from "flagrant'' trespassers, but in many cases, other trespassers would have the same legal standing as regular invited guests.
Judges and lawyers often rely on the Restatement of Torts to help them interpret common practices and nuances in the law.
Michael Greene, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, worked on the Restatement of Torts and said it is important to distinguish between different types of trespassers.
"Plainly, somebody who comes down your chimney to rob you is a trespasser,'' Greene said. "But then there are other kinds of trespassers. The kid who cuts across your yard to get to school is a trespasser.''
A child who ran across property would, under current common law, probably be exempted from the West Virginia bill, but Greene gave another example of a trespasser who would likely not be protected.
"There's a park in Rhode Island that has a cliff-side walk where you can look out,'' Greene said. "And you're walking along this path. The park closes at 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock. There was somebody walking along that path and, because it was not maintained, he fell and was either killed or badly injured. He was a trespasser because the park was closed.''