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Premises Liability – The Limited Duty of Care Owed to Social Guests

June 01, 2016

Michael J. Rankin reports a recent case where the Court granted the Defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint brought by their neighbor for injuries she sustained when she fell on or about Defendants’ residential property while walking to Defendants’ home.  Specifically, Plaintiff argued that Defendants’ vehicle was blocking the sidewalk, forcing her to walk around it, and causing her to slip and fall on snow and ice.  Plaintiff suffered a fractured wrist which necessitated surgery.  Following the incident, the Police instructed the Defendants to move the car that was blocking the sidewalk. 

The Court found the Plaintiff to be a “social guest” on Defendants’ property and therefore, Defendants owed her only a limited duty of care, i.e., an obligation to warn of a known dangerous condition on the premises except when the guest is aware of the condition or by reasonable use of the facilities would observe it.  Plaintiff visited Defendants’ home earlier that day to assist with a homework assignment and observed the subject vehicle blocking the sidewalk. As such, the position of the vehicle during her second visit to Defendants’ home was obvious to her.  Thus, the Court found that Defendants had no duty to warn her of the vehicle’s positioning. 

Also, the law in New Jersey is well-settled that a residential property owner is generally immune from liability for accidents resulting from naturally-caused conditions of public sidewalks abutting the property.  The Court determined the nature and purpose of the Defendants’ ownership to be primarily residential and not commercial, notwithstanding one of the Defendants worked from home.  As such, to the extent that Plaintiff’s injuries may have occurred when she fell on ice on Defendants’ sidewalk, the Court found that Defendants, as residential landowners, were not liable for such injuries.

The Court also knocked down Plaintiff’s argument that Defendants are negligent due to Defendants’ car blocking the sidewalk in violation of a local ordinance.  The Court held that not only were the Defendants not charged with violating such ordinance, but the breach of such ordinance does not render Defendants liable to Plaintiff as a matter of law. 

The outcome of this case may have been different had the Plaintiff been considered a “business invitee” instead of a social guest.  A business invitee is invited on the premises for purposes of the owner that are often commercial or business related and a homeowner owes a duty to protect business invitees from foreseeable harm.  Specifically, under New Jersey law, the duty requires the exercise of reasonable care to guard against any dangerous conditions on his or her property that the owner either knows about or should have discovered.   Alternatively, a host’s duty of care owed to a social guest is more limited as seen in this case.  

Please contact Michael J. Rankin if you have any questions or need any assistance in connection to this subject.