Landowners and business operators have certain legal duties to those who come onto their property for business purposes. This includes the duty to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition.
However, those who enter another party’s property unlawfully are not necessarily owed the same duty of care. While the landowner does not have the right to intentionally or recklessly harm a trespasser, a trespasser cannot recover damages from a landowner for injuries suffered due to mere negligence on the landowner’s part.
Because of this important distinction, disputes can arise in premises liability actions regarding the injured person’s status as a business invitee or a trespasser.
Facts of the Case
In the case of Bernier v. Smitty’s Sports Pub, Inc., decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court earlier this month, the plaintiff was the administratrix of the estate of a 74-year-old man who died of injuries that he sustained after a fall on the premises of the defendant’s establishment in 2010. The decedent entered the defendant’s property through a rear entrance, intending to use the men’s bathroom.
Instead, he opened a door marked “Employees Only” that opened directly onto a concrete staircase. The staircase had a drop of over two and a half feet; the door opened inward, and the stairwell was not lit. According to the defendant, the staircase door was usually locked during business hours, but, for some reason, it was unlocked at the time of the accident.
The administratrix filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the defendant. A jury trial resulted in a verdict for the administratrix. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court should have entered either a directed verdict or a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the basis that the decedent was, as a matter of law, a trespasser.
Decision of the Appellate Court
The court affirmed the lower court’s entry of judgment in the administratrix’s favor. The defendant admitted that the decedent was on the premises legally but argued that he became a trespasser when he opened the “Employees Only” door. The court rejected this argument.
First, the court reiterated that the question of whether the decedent was lawfully on the defendant’s premises was dispositive of whether tort liability existed against the defendant. The court then found that a visitor’s status is a question of law, rather than a question of fact, in cases in which the relevant facts of the case are not in dispute. Such was the situation in the current case.
The court also noted that the issue of the decedent’s comparative fault was properly submitted to the jury. Given that the defendant admitted that the “Employees Only” door created a dangerous condition for someone who did not know what was on the other side of the door and that it was foreseeable that a patron could open the door by mistake, the court found no errors in the lower court’s ruling.
Talk to a Massachusetts Premises Liability Attorney
Slip and fall accidents are very common. As this case illustrates, the injuries in such an accident may be very serious and even fatal. If you have been hurt on someone else’s property, the Cape Cod premises liability attorneys at the Law Offices of John C. Manoog, III, can help. Call us for an appointment at (888) 262-6664. We have offices located in Hyannis and Plymouth, from which we serve all of Cape Cod.
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