It's Party Season! But is it Only Fun Until Someone Gets Hurt?

11/17/2008

Well, it’s that time of year again and people are throwing parties.  With those parties, many hosts are wondering if they can be sued by their guests if they get hurt. 

Let’s look at three different situations under Kentucky law.

So, you’ve decided to throw a party at your house.  You’ve thought of everything.  You have a great menu, great entertainment, and you invited all of your friends.  You are looking forward to a great time.  Before your guests start to arrive, you notice that the hand-rail on your banister leading upstairs has come loose—“no time to fix it, you tell yourself, let’s just hope that no one needs to go upstairs.”  You also notice that the light going downstairs to the basement isn’t working—without it, its pitch black.  No problem you tell yourself, no one has any reason to be going to the basement anyway.  Finally, you glance out at the sidewalk and notice that the recent cold weather has brought ice and snow and your walk has some obvious patches of ice. 

If someone falls and is injured as a result of one of these three conditions, can you be sued?

This area of law is known as premises liability and is a sub-category of general negligence law. Under negligence law, an injured person must prove (1) the defendant owed a duty of care to the person injured, (2) the defendant breached that duty, and (3) there is a connection between the breach and injury. However, “[w]hile general negligence law requires the existence of a duty, premises liability law supplies the nature and scope of that duty when dealing with tort injuries on realty.” The nature and scope of this duty is determined based upon the status of injured person at the time of his injury.  A person can be an invitee, licensee, or trespasser.

Whether your party-goers are “invitees” or “licensees” is extremely important in determining your liability.  A property owner owes an invitee the duty of discovering a dangerous condition, whereas he owes a licensee only the duty to warn him of a dangerous condition he already is aware of.  As a general rule, an owner doesn’t owe any duty to trespassers. Depending on the circumstances, a person’s status can change from invitee, to licensee to trespasser. 

The terms are somewhat misleading.  You’re probably thinking “Well, I threw a party and “invited” guests, so my guests must be invitees.”  You’re probably also thinking “No one needs a “license” to come to my party, so obviously my guests aren’t licensees.” 

You would be wrong.

A licensee enters by the express invitation or implied invitation of the owner solely on the licensee's own business, pleasure or convenience. As for social guests, although they may be social “invitees,” they are licensees from the standpoint of the law. This means that you must warn your guests of a dangerous condition that you are aware of; but you don’t need to go inspect your entire house to find all the potential dangerous conditions. 

So, do you have to warn your guests about the handrail?  What about the light to the basement?  How about that ice?  Well, this is where things get tricky.  A home owner owes his guests (licensee) the duty of reasonable care, either to make the land as safe as it appears, or to disclose the fact that it is dangerous. “There is no duty to warn a licensee of any danger or condition which is open and obvious or which should or could be observed by the [guest] in the exercise of ordinary care.”

So, here’s how I analyze the handrail, burned-out light and ice. 

If there is any chance your guests will be going upstairs, you have to tell them about the handrail.  Place a sign on it or rope it off.  Simple. 

The burned-out light leading to the basement, where no one is supposed to be going, is likely not something you need to inform your guests about for two reasons.  First, because no one is supposed to be going to the basement, if someone does, they likely become a trespasser--to whom you owe no duty.  Second, even if they remain a licensee, you have no duty to warn your guests about conditions that are open and obvious.  If a guest chooses to walk down a flight of stairs in the dark, and they fall, it’s their own fault. 

The ice issue is tricky.  Generally, ice and snow are considered to be “natural perils” and are open and obvious.  Generally, you don’t need to warn guests about natural perils or open and obvious dangers.  A couple of big exceptions are if you attempted to clean the snow and ice away and don’t do a good job.  Another situation where you may need to warn is if your guests have no reason to expect ice.  For example, if the cause is a result of you spraying off your walkway with water.  Better warn your guests about that.