Quick answer: yes, a burglar can sue a homeowner but only under certain conditions established in the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1984.
Here’s the long answer on why you should not even think about setting dangerous booby traps for buglers, as annoying as they might be.
In 1965, a 6-year old boy stepped on an electrified railway line after going through a breach in the fence.
A case of negligence on the part of British Railways Board, the line operator, was brought before the court.
The judge found the company guilty of negligence because they had allowed the fence to fall into despair. Furthermore, there was reasonable expectation that a child could access the railway because it was on public land.
The case went further up to the House of Lords (back when it functioned as a court of appeal) where the railway company was again found to be negligent.
The House of Lords ruled that occupiers of a property owed a duty to trespassers to protect them, within reasonable limits, from obvious harm.
This led to the creation and adoption of the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1984.
Duty of care
This is the most important phrase of the act.
‘Duty of Care’ basically means that you, as an occupier of a property, have a reasonable responsibility to see that trespassers don’t come to harm because of a safety risk that you were aware of and could have prevented.
The ‘occupier’ here means anyone with significant control of a property. It can be a homeowner, a tenant or a property manager.
But just because you have a Duty of Care doesn’t mean that a burglar can successfully sue for damages if they get injured while attempting to break into your home.
The act sets out several conditions.
- You must be aware that the danger exists. If the burglar falls into a hole you did not know was there and they break their leg, you are not responsible.
- There is reasonable ground to believe that you were aware the burglar might come to your home.
- If the safety risk is one that you can be expected to offer protection from. This will depend on the nature and extent of the risk, the age of the burglar and the seriousness of a potential injury among other factors.
Why you shouldn’t set booby traps
It’s understandable why you might be tempted to set a booby trap to injure a burglar.
They are criminals who are trespassing on your property with the intent of robbing your home.
But intentionally creating a safety risk, even for a potential criminal, could see you sued for damages.
That’s because it fulfils all three conditions above. You obviously know the risks exists, you are doing it because you expect a burglar and you can provide protection from the risk by not creating it in the first place.
When can a burglar sue?
The 1984 act is not the first of its kind. The Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 predates it by almost three decades.
But the 1957 act applies only to visitors, not trespassers, and is much wider in terms of the circumstances under which someone can sue a homeowner.
The 1984 act applies only to trespassers and states that they can only sue in the event of injury or death. Damage to personal property is not reasonable ground for suing the occupier.
If the burglar is electrocuted because of exposed wiring that you knew about, you might be held liable.
But if a burglar drops and breaks their expensive phone after tripping on a tree stump hidden by overgrown grass in your yard, you are not responsible for the damaged phone.
The bottom line
Can burglars sue homeowners? Yes, they definitely can.
The nature of the risk, the extent of injury sustained and what you could have done to avert harm will determine the outcome of the case.
Most of the time, such cases are ruled frivolous and thrown out. But be cautious if you are thinking of setting a trap for the next burglar who tries to break into your home.
You might find yourself in a heap of legal trouble. It may be a better idea to focus rather on prevention and deterrence measures such as good combination padlocks, anti snap locks, etc.