Premises Liability: Regular people differ from businesses

by Trey Ross, M.Ed., Esq.Holiday party

Homeowner: I’m hosting a Christmas party at my home this year. Because of the way my house is designed, guests have to climb a set of stairs once they enter the front door. A few of my guests are in their early 70s, so I suspect they may have trouble with the stairs.

I’ll also be serving alcohol and there will be teenagers at the party as well.

I know businesses can be sued when a person is hurt on a company’s property. What should I do to protect myself from liability during my holiday party?

Brief Answer: Unlike businesses, a homeowner hosting a party only has to warn his guests of known dangers that are not obvious.

Premises Liability: Regular people differ from businesses

Businesses and regular people have different relationships with those invited onto their respective properties; thus, Maryland recognizes that they also have different duties.[1] While businesses have a duty to make reasonable efforts to investigate potential hazards and to make their properties safe for their invitees,[2] homeowners who invite social guests onto their property have much smaller burden.[3]

Maryland follows the rule outlined in the Restatement (Second) of Torts which provides that a person who hosts others at his home is only liable for physical harm to his guests when:

(1) the host knows about or should know about a hazard,

(2) the hazard presents an unreasonable risk of harm to guests,

(3) the host should expect that guests will not discover or realize the hazard,

(4) the host fails to warn the guests of the hazard or makes it safe, AND

(5) the injured guest did not know about or have reason to know about the hazard.[4]

Each of the elements above must be satisfied if an injured guest is to hold his host liable. Further, “[t]he host has no duty to warn of dangers or defects of which he had no knowledge or means of knowledge, nor does he have a duty to give a warning of a condition which should be obvious to the guest.”[5]

For example, in Paquin, the defendants allowed the plaintiffs, Mr. and Mrs. William Paquin, to spend a weekend at their home while the plaintiffs were in town visiting.[6] The bedroom provided to the plaintiffs contained a small “scatter” rug on each side of the plaintiffs’ bed, and the floor was made of polished hardwood.[7] As Mrs. Paquin prepared for bed, she stepped on the scatter rug and the rug slipped across the hardwood floor. As a result, Ms. Paquin fell and was injured.[8]

Mr. and Mrs. Paquin sued the defendants believing that the hosts were liable for the injury Mrs. Paquin sustained while on their property. However, the Court held that the defendants were not liable since the hazard posed by a rug lying on a polished hardwood floor was obvious and it was not inherently dangerous.[9]

A second example of how homeowners have a lesser duty to their guests was examined by the Fourth Circuit (i.e., federal court) a few years ago in the case of Kirchoff v. Abbey.[10] In Kirchoff, the plaintiff, Mark Kirchoff, attended a party where underage people were drinking unsupervised.[11] While at the party, the plaintiff was attacked by a group of party goers and was struck in head by an empty vodka bottle.[12] The plaintiff suffered permanent injuries as a result of the attack, and he brought a suit against the owner of the property and the host of the party.[13]

The court held that the plaintiff was not entitled to recover from the property owner since there was no evidence that the defendant knew or should have known about the underage drinking.[14] Likewise, the court held that the plaintiff was not allowed to hold the host liable since, among other things, the plaintiff “was a social guest who could discover the risks posed by the underage drinking party.”[15]

Summary:

Individuals who host holiday parties should warn their guests of any nonobvious hazard on the property. Potentially dangerous conditions that are obvious (e.g., stairs and intoxicated guests) are not things homeowners should be overly concerned with since the law expects houseguests to protect themselves from observable hazards. Regular people who invite others into their homes for purely social engagements are not going to be held to the same standard as businesses who invite people to their properties for commercial reasons.

[1]  Paquin v. McGinnis, 246 Md. 569, 573 (1967) (providing that “[a] business visitor or invitee who enters the private premises at the express or implied invitation of the occupier has a relationship with the invitor much different from that of a social guest and a host”).

[2] Id. (providing that a business owner “is under an affirmative duty to protect…not only against dangers of which he knows, but also against those which with reasonable care he might discover”).

[3] Id. at 574 (providing that “[i]t would be too much to ask a host to provide greater care for a guest, who benefits from his host’s gratuitous hospitality, than the host provides for his own family”);  Voelker v. Delmarva Power & Light Co., 727 F. Supp. 991, 998-999 (D. Md. 1989) (providing that “a social guest is considered a licensee by invitation. Bramble v. Thompson, 264 Md. 518, 521, 287 A.2d 265 (1972). A licensee by invitation takes the property as the owner and the members of the owner’s family use them”).

[4] Paquin, 246 Md. at 572.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Paquin, 246 Md. at 574 (providing that “[t]he use of hardwood, polished, waxed floors, furnished with rugs, in homes is a matter of common knowledge; and this type of floor and furnishing is not inherently dangerous or a hazard to the safety of a social guest”).

[10] 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114838, 13-14 (D. Md. Oct. 5, 2011).

[11] Id. at 4.

[12] Id. at 4-5.

[13] Id. at 5.

[14] Id. at 13-14 (providing that since “no reasonable jury could find that Windridge [the property owner] had actual or constructive notice of the underage drinking parties Windridge could not have foreseen the harm that would result from allowing such parties to continue occurring and so had no duty to shut them down”).

[15] Id. at 20.

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