Can your house or abandoned factory become so haunted that you now have a duty to protect trespassers? Property owners generally have no duty to protect trespassers from injury on their property. After all, you shouldn’t have to go out of your way to protect someone from potentially hazardous conditions on your property when they aren’t supposed to be there in the first place. But what if the trespassers are children innocently investigating tales of ghosts and other hauntings at a shuttered asylum known for its eerie history?
Enter the attractive nuisance doctrine. While owners generally do not owe adult trespassers protection from injury on their property, this is not the case when it comes to minors; even if uninvited (i.e., trespassing), most states impose some duty of care on landowners to protect children who are ‘drawn’ to the property. The reasoning is that while adults are or should be capable of realizing certain dangers, children often lack this ability.
Landowners therefore owe some duty to protect children when, among other things, the landowner knows or should know that an artificial condition (e.g., a house or pool) on the property poses an unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm. Additionally, the landowner must know or have reason to know that children trespass on the property where the danger is present, the children do not discover the danger or realize the potential harm, and the risk to children must outweigh the burden on the landowner to resolve the dangerous condition.*
The doctrine dates back to 1841 when an English court found a cart owner to be liable for the injuries suffered by a child who climbed onto the owner’s unattended cart. The doctrine appears to have been first used in the United States in an 1873 decision by a Nebraska court finding that a railroad operator was liable when a child was injured while playing on the railroad’s turntable. It developed over the next several decades in the United States as the “turntable doctrine” and later took on its current name after being applied to a range of circumstances. Today, most states have either codified the attractive nuisance doctrine or have continued to apply it as common law.
The Haunted History of the Rhode Island School for the Feebleminded
A more modern example occurred in the early 2000’s. The incident involved a 17-year-old boy and the Rhode Island School for the Feebleminded, a state institution for the mentally disabled that would later be known as the Ladd Center. The school operated from 1908 to 1993 in the town of Exeter. Originally designed to be a training center for young people with disabilities to learn farm work and mechanical trades, the school went down a much darker path. The institution’s forefather, Dr. Walter Fernald, was a known eugenicist; its chief administrator, Dr. Joseph Ladd, would later advocate for Rhode Island to pass laws requiring forced sterilization for the mentally ill.
After changing its name to the Exeter School in 1917, the institution would spend the next two decades doing what similar facilities around the country did: act as a dumping ground for those with mental disabilities or those who had committed acts considered to be immoral. Since forced sterilization was illegal in Rhode Island, young women who had taken part in immoral behavior, such as prostitution or adultery, were often confined there until menopause or their eventual death. The school did little to educate its population and primarily served as a means of segregating “undesirable” people from the rest of society. Dr. Ladd resigned in the 1950’s after an inmate was implicated in the murder of a disabled child; the boy had been found suffocated in a bag hanging from a shower faucet.
Shortly after Dr. Ladd’s departure, the school was renamed after him and the new administrator oversaw a modernization of the school that featured new buildings, including a hospital and small cottages. However, journalists, as well as a state investigation in the 1970’s, uncovered several disturbing deaths caused by negligence and medical malpractice. A state court ordered the school to severely reform its policies and to reduce its population by half. During the 1980s, as part of a larger national deinstitutionalization movement, the school’s population dwindled, and it was finally closed for good in 1993. It should be noted that while the deinstitutionalization movement led to the closure of places like the Ladd Center, institutions were not replaced with robust social programs designed to adequately help those in need. People with mental disabilities often found themselves forced onto the streets or in prison, a failure of the public health system that continues to this day.
Over 100 Years Later, the School Continues to Cause Injury
Twelve years after the closure of the Ladd Center, a group of teenagers entered the school grounds to explore the institution’s haunted remains. While there was no fence around the property, the State had put up “No Trespassing” signs and secured the windows and doors of the bottom two floors of the building. According to its witness, the State was aware that kids and adults entered the property to “look for ghost and spirits and what the hell ever else they were looking for.” However, that didn’t stop the teenagers from scurrying up pipes to the third floor where they found abandoned bed frames, medical devices, and bottles with mysterious clear liquid. The boys admitted at the time that they presumed the clear liquid was probably toxic but, nevertheless, carried the bottles with them as they kicked open the first-floor doors to exit the building. It was at this time that one of the boys proceeded to trip and break the stolen bottle, severely burning himself with what he would later learn was sulfuric acid. One year later, the boy sued the State of Rhode Island, claiming that the state was negligent in maintaining the property and owed him a duty of care under the attractive nuisance doctrine.
The trial court found that the State was aware that children trespassed on the property and that it was unreasonable and irresponsible to leave bottles of sulfuric acid on the grounds. However, the State was spared liability due to the injured trespasser being a 17-year-old who, as the evidenced showed, was aware of the danger. Since the point of the attractive nuisance doctrine is to protect children who are unaware of potential hazards, the court held that the doctrine was inapplicable. Deciding it had had enough of the ghastly attractive nuisance doctrine, the state demolished the buildings on the school grounds (but not before the school could be used as the set for the 2015 film Exeter).
Property owners beware: if your cabin in the woods gains a reputation too spooky to resist, you may be better off sealing it off from society entirely, or demolishing it and sending it straight back to hell where it came from – according to the neighborhood kids.
*The Restatement of Torts, which has been adopted with some variation in most states, lists the following five factors to consider:
A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm to children trespassing thereon caused by an artificial condition upon the land if
(a) the place where the condition exists is one upon which the possessor knows or has reason to know that children are likely to trespass, and
(b) the condition is one of which the possessor knows or has reason to know and which he realizes or should realize will involve an unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm to such children, and
(c) the children because of their youth do not discover the condition or realize the risk involved in intermeddling with it or in coming within the area made dangerous by it, and
(d) the utility to the possessor of maintaining the condition and the burden of eliminating the danger are slight as compared with the risk to children involved, and
(e) the possessor fails to exercise reasonable care to eliminate the danger or otherwise to protect the children.
Restatement (Second) of Torts § 339 (1965)