The duty of care a landowner owes to a person on his or her property depends on the person’s status as either an invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser. The highest standard of care is owed to an invitee. A business invitee is a person invited to come onto or remain on the property for purposes directly or indirectly related to his or her business dealings with the person in possession of the land. A licensee is a person who is allowed to enter or remain on the property because of the possessor’s consent. A licensee can be someone who is on the property for their own purposes or a social guest. Since the duty owed to a person is based on their status, a Washington premises liability case may turn on their status, as seen in a recent case.
The plaintiff worked as an aesthetician at a plastic surgery office. One of the defendants had been the plaintiff’s client for several years. The plaintiff arranged to visit the defendant at her home. After planning the visit, but before the visit occurred, the plaintiff offered to bring the defendant some scar cream.
The plaintiff stayed at the defendants’ home for about a half hour. While there, she met members of the family, took a tour of the home, and talked with the defendant. The defendant paid the plaintiff for the scar cream while she was there. As the plaintiff left, she opened the gate and stepped backwards onto the landing. She fell backwards.
The plaintiff filed suit against the client and the client’s husband for injuries resulting from the fall. The defendants moved for summary judgment. The plaintiff moved for the court to determine she was a business invitee on the property rather than a social guest or licensee. The defendants argued she was a licensee.
The trial court found the plaintiff failed to establish the defendants’ negligence and granted the defendants’ motion. The court did not rule on the plaintiff’s status on the property. The plaintiff appealed.
The plaintiff argued she was a business invitee because she came onto the property due to her job, and she gave the defendant an economic benefit by bringing the cream to her. The appeals court found, however, that an economic benefit to the possessor of the property is not determinative of the plaintiff’s status. Previous case law holds that a person is not a business invitee just because she provides an economic benefit if there is not a mutuality of interest in the related business or purpose or if the benefit is just incidental to a primarily familial or social visit.
The appeals court found the plaintiff’s initial reason for visiting the defendant was social. The plaintiff testified she had visited the defendant “as a good deed.” The plaintiff and the defendant had exchanged text messages regarding the visit. Those messages showed that the scar cream did not come up until the visit had already been scheduled. Additionally, she did not just drop off the cream and leave. She met the defendant’s family, had tea, toured the home, and stayed around a half hour. The appeals court found delivering the scar cream was just incidental to the social visit, making the plaintiff a licensee.
In Washington, a person in possession of land is only liable to a licensee for injuries caused by a condition on the property if he or she knew or had reason to know of the condition, and that it imposed an unreasonable risk, and if he or she should expect the licensee would not discover the condition or realize the danger. Furthermore, the possessor is only liable if he or she fails to exercise reasonable care to make the condition safe or warn the licensee. Finally, the defendant is only liable if the licensee did not know or have reason to know of the condition and the risk.
The possessor of the property does not have to seek out hidden dangers or keep the place perfectly safe. He or she simply must exercise reasonable care as to any known dangerous condition that they could reasonably expect the licensee would not discover or of which they would not realize the risk. Here, the plaintiff did not provide any evidence that the defendants knew the step was in a dangerous condition. Furthermore, the plaintiff testified that she noticed the step was in a dangerous condition before she fell. The plaintiff had conceded that this testimony would bar her from recovering damages. The appeals court therefore affirmed the summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
Status is determined based on the particular facts and circumstances in the case. Slightly different facts could result in a different outcome. If you have been injured on someone else’s property, an experienced Washington personal injury attorney can help you. Call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case with one of our attorneys.
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