Four backyard dangers that could leave homeowners liable
By Marcus Pickett
You might not think of the building materials from your latest home improvement project as toys -- but your neighbor's children might. And if they hurt themselves while playing with these "toys" in your yard, you could be held liable.
Some commonplace items in your backyard can create a liability risk because they are attractive -- and dangerous -- to children. Legally, they are called attractive nuisances, and it is important for homeowners to understand their insurance implications.
According to USLegal.com, "The doctrine of attractive nuisance is premised on the belief that one who maintains a dangerous condition which is likely to attract children on their property is under a duty to post a warning or take affirmative action to protect children from the dangers of that attraction." A no-trespassing sign often is insufficient to release the property owner from liability because young children cannot read well or read at all.
As a homeowner, it can be difficult to identify everything in the backyard that might pose a hazard or lead to a homeowner's insurance liability claim. While this is not an exhaustive list, it does help demonstrate how even a subtle backyard danger may create an "attractive nuisance."
1. Swimming pools: This feature is one of the most well-known backyard hazards. Swimming pools should have fences or be otherwise enclosed to prevent children from using the pool without the homeowner's permission. Municipalities often enforce laws governing fence height and locks, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Even so, pool fences may not be a guarantee against creating an attractive nuisance if the fence gate is left unlocked or ajar.
Before installing a pool in your yard, be sure to call your insurance company. Pools increase your liability risk, and the Insurance Information Institute suggests that pool owners increase their liability coverage to between $300,000 and $500,000. Other common items that can produce attractive nuisances include trampolines; paint and other toxic materials; old refrigerators or freezers; and abandoned vehicles.
2. Landscaping features: Most natural landscaping features are not considered attractive nuisances unless they are created or maintained by the owner. Aside from fallen branches, most trees and other plants don't count as attractive nuisances. But there are exceptions. According to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, the giant hogweed -- a tall weed that poses numerous health hazards -- "is an attractive nuisance, with large stems that might be used for swords or spyglasses by creative children." Likewise, steep embankments generally don't qualify as an attractive nuisance, but a retaining wall might.
3. Lawn equipment: Although nearly any piece of lawn equipment may present a hazard, equipment that can be started without a key is most likely to fit within the attractive nuisance doctrine. Some lawn equipment may not even need to be turned on, such as snow blowers, saws, lawn mowers and other sharp tools. Lawn equipment can be particularly dangerous because it's all too common to get a phone call when working out in the yard. Many people are apt to set down their pruning shears or other equipment with the idea that it will only take a minute. Maybe the phone call runs long, or maybe a small child was spying, waiting for the chance to help out with the yardwork. The simple rule: Never leave lawn equipment unattended.
4. Trash cans: It's easy to think that a trash can doesn't pose a serious hazard, but there's a long history of refuse bins creating dangerous situations for children. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 47 injuries and deaths from crushed skulls and chests were reported between 1971 and 1978, when the commission enacted a ban against unstable refuse bins. At that time, about half of refuse bins may not have been able to pass the safety requirements identified by the ban.
To avoid an attractive nuisance, consider both the stability and placement of trash cans. If, for example, a disposal bin is placed next to a backyard deck, a young child could see the setup as a playground to climb on.
In terms of home insurance, attractive nuisances are a double-edged sword. Protection against damages from these perils can add substantially to premium costs. Some insurance companies require policyholders to take special precautions to gain coverage. A home insurance policy may also exclude coverage for some of these perils altogether by containing a trampoline exclusion clause, for example).
For all these reasons, it's important to review a home insurance policy and establish a liability coverage cap that matches the risk that a property presents. Wondering how much extra liability coverage costs? According to the Insurance Information Institute, "for an additional premium of about $200 to $300 a year, you can get $1 million of liability protection over and above what you have on your home."
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