Ainsworth v. Chandler – Plaintiff Status in Premises Liability Claim

The most common type of premises liability lawsuit in Alabama arises as a result of a “slip-and-fall” or “trip-and-fall.” Circumstances vary widely, but tend to involve injuries caused by falling as a result of tripping or slipping as a consequence of liquid or debris on floors, uneven surfaces or defects in the ground, poor lighting or some other hazardous condition.

However, simply proving injury on a person’s property is not enough. State law burdens plaintiffs with many requirements. Included is establishment of duty according to plaintiff’s status on site, as well as a prima facie (first impression) showing that the foreign substance or object caused the fall and the defendant knew or should have known of it at the time of the fall and failed to address it. The requirements may differ slightly if the alleged hazard was a property defect, rather than a foreign substance. However, in either case, the plaintiff’s on-site status will be key.

Our Montgomery injury lawyers know the differentiation will determine the duty defendant owed the plaintiff.

For example, a plaintiff is a “business invitee” if he or she is invited to enter or remain on site for the commercial benefit of the property owner. To this individual, the property owner would owe the highest duty of care. What that means is the property owner has a duty to use ordinary care to warn or otherwise protect a business invitee from hazards, assuming the danger is unreasonable and the property owner knows about it or should know about it.

By contrast, a person is considered a “licensee” if he or she is invited to enter the property for any purposes other than a commercial one. An example would be a social guest. To these individuals, the property owner is only liable for harm to the licensee if the injured party can show the property owner:

  • Knew or should have known of the condition and expected the plaintiff would not discover or realize the danger;
  • Failed to exercise reasonable care in making the condition safe or to warn the plaintiff;
  • Plaintiff did not know or have reason to know of the risk involved.

Finally, trespassers are owed the least duty of care, except in certain circumstances where children are involved.

In the recent case of Ainsworth v. Chandler, before the Vermont Supreme Court, it was the distinction between the first two that resulted in contention.

Plaintiff was dating (and later married) the owner of an electronics store. She stopped there one day to visit him, but also purchased several smoke detectors. As both parties exited the business, they descended a flight of stairs, on which piles of coiled wire were located. Plaintiff tripped, fell and suffered severe and lasting injuries. Those included partial blindness, scrapes, bruises, a fractured tooth and a severe ankle sprain.

Four months before she filed her personal injury claim against the business, the owner of the business filed a lawsuit against his insurer, claiming breach of policy because it had not awarded plaintiff $1 million in compensation.

When plaintiff filed her claim against the business, the owner conceded liability on her $1 million claim. The insurer, learning of these admissions, moved to intervene in defense of its interests. It moved for summary judgment on grounds plaintiff’s assertion failed as a matter of law because she was a social guest – not a business invitee – and therefore had not met the required burden of proof.

Insurer argued that because plaintiff was a social guest, the property owner’s duty of care only required him to disclose dangerous conditions known to him. That duty was not breached. Plaintiff argued, and defendant did not dispute, that she was a business invitee, as she had made a purchase at the store that day. Further, she argued the state had issued violations to the business owner dating back several years for having too much debris in the stairway – proving he had knowledge of the danger.

Trial court granted insurer’s motion for summary judgment, and thus defendant’s lawsuit against the insurer was dismissed as moot. Both plaintiff and defendant appealed, arguing the court erred in finding her a social guest and a lack of defendant’s breach of duty.

The Vermont Supreme Court found the facts did not conclusively establish plaintiff’s status, which means it was a question of fact for a jury – not to be decided as a matter of law before a judge. Therefore, the earlier judgment was reversed and the case remanded for trial. Because that meant the property owner’s lawsuit against the insurer was no longer moot, that case too was reinstated.

Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.

Additional Resources:
Ainsworth v. Chandler, Aug. 29, 2014, Vermont Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Travelers Property Casualty Co. v. Moore – Company Liability for Workers Off-the-Clock, Sept. 7, 2014, Montgomery Injury Lawyer Blog

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