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Clinedinst v. Visco

A-5495-09T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

LANDOWNER LIABILITY — A host has a duty to warn only when dangerous conditions exist on the property of which the host has knowledge and of which a guest is unaware.

A mother visited her daughter and son-in-law’s home, something she did with some regularity. The home had a paved patio with an in-ground pool and a separate grass area. The mother had been in the pool area several times that year, as was the case in previous years. One of those times, while moving her hat and glasses from a chair, “[s]he stepped backward onto an object she did not see, lost her balance and fell.” The fall injured her shoulder and she broke her hip. Although she “did not see the object she stepped on, she was fairly certain it was a dog toy” because the dog had been outside when she first stepped onto the patio and then left before she fell. It was not uncommon for toys and other pool items to be scattered in the backyard. Nor, was it is uncommon for dog toys to be lying around. The mother sometimes picked up the children’s toys but generally “left the dog toys for the dog to play with.”

The daughter knew “there were things lying on the patio area but she did not pick them up.” Generally, she waited until the end of the day. On the day on question, she did not warn her mother “to be careful to avoid anything lying on the patio that might create a dangerous condition.”

The mother sued her daughter and son-in-law, but the lower court rejected her suit, holding that the homeowners, even though they failed “to warn [the mother] of a danger for which she knew or should have known, had not breached the limited duty owed to [the mother] as a social guest.” The mother appealed, but unsuccessfully. The Appellate Division agreed with the lower court, explaining “[t]o prove a cause of action for negligence, three elements are essential: ‘(1) a duty of care owned by defendant to plaintiff; (2) a breach of that duty by defendant; and (3) an injury to plaintiff proximately caused by defendant’s breach.’” Further, the law in New Jersey is that “[t]he duty which hosts owe to their social guests with respect to the conditions of their property is limited. A host has a duty to warn only when dangerous conditions exist on the property of which the host has actual knowledge and of which the guest is unaware. Hosts are not required to improve or alter their home in order to render it safer for a guest than for themselves. Where is a guest is aware of a dangerous condition or by a reasonable use of his [faculties] would observe it, the host is not liable.” Here, it was undisputed that the mother was a social guest, and “[a] landowner is not required to provide greater safety for his guests than for himself and need not ‘scour the premises to discover latent defects.’” Here, the danger was “obvious or self-evident.” Therefore, there was no need to warn. Consequently, given the facts presented to the lower court, the Appellate Division held that the daughter and son-in-law had not breached the duty to the mother as a social guest.


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