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Ginda v. Bocchino

A-3798-03T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2005) (Unpublished)

LANDOWNER’S LIABILITY—If a guest, through reasonable use of his or her senses would observe a dangerous condition, the host has no liability if the guest failed to use due care.

An accident victim sued a homeowner because when he walked down stairs in the homeowner’s house, he “slipped on clean laundry tucked to the side of the third or fourth rung from the bottom of the stairs ... sustaining personal injuries.” The victim claimed that the homeowner “created and maintained a dangerous and hazardous condition ... and failed to warn [him] of the condition.”

The Appellate Division held that while “a homeowner has a duty to warn a social guest of a known dangerous condition on the homeowner’s property ..., he does not have to provide greater safety on his premises for a social guest than he would for himself.” According to the Court, “[i]n the context of analyzing the duty of care a landowner owes to a social guest, ‘[o]nce the proofs show that the landowner knew of a particular condition on the property, [t]he inquiry is not whether the [landowner] realized the condition held any risk or whether a reasonable man would be cognizant of it.’” Thus, the Court held that if a guest, through reasonable usage of his senses would observe a dangerous condition, the host has no liability if “the guest failed to use due care.”

The clothing that the victim slipped on “consisted of a bright red sweater and white jockey shorts that were neatly folded and ‘tucked into the side of the stairs, third from the bottom[.]’” The Court held that “the colors of the clothes should have drawn attention to” the victim of their existence. Additionally, “[t]he fact that [the victim] was descending down a flight of stairs in and of itself suggests that he should have been watching where he was going ... particularly where the surface is not flat.” The victim claimed that since his three hundred pound friend walked directly in front of him down the stairs, the friend’s large girth kept him from seeing the pile of clothes. But the Court rejected this claim since the victim “should not have been as close as he was” to his friend “as he descended the stairs.”

The Court likewise rejected the victim’s claim “that ‘basic fairness’ requires that a duty be implied” to the homeowner under the facts. The Court found that the victim was not claiming “that there were any structural defects in the stairs or handrail when the accidence occurred.” The victim had visited the home on several occasions, and the condition of the piled up clothes “was transitory and ... open and obvious.” Thus, the Court concluded that “[t]he obvious red sweater and jockey underwear did not constitute a dangerous condition for which [the homeowner] had a duty to warn” the victim; his “failure to observe the clothes was essentially the result of his own inattention and his failure, by the reasonable exercise of his faculties, to use due care.” The Court thus upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the victim’s claim.

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