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Kingett v. Miller

347 N.J. Super. 566, 791 A.2d 224 (App. Div. 2002)

PREMISES LIABILITY— A warning to “be careful” from a property owner, even if acknowledged, may not be specific enough to satisfy the owner’s duty to warn invitees of hidden dangers.

A 65 year old man and his wife went to their lawyer to execute their wills. They entered the office through the front door. It was raining heavily, and when they were leaving, the man asked the lawyer’s receptionist “if he and his wife could exit through the side door because it was closer to where his car was parked.” She replied, “Okay, but be careful.” He quipped, “if I fall, I’ll sue.” The man noticed that the stairs “were steep with narrow treads and there were no handrails.” In fact, he warned his wife. Nonetheless, he “lost his balance, slipped, fell and severely injured himself.” The lower court found the lawyer’s duty was to exercise reasonable care, to make the premises reasonably safe, or give warning of a dangerous condition. It also found that there was no question that the receptionist discharged the duty to give a warning. As a result, the lower court found that “there’s simply no issue for the jury to try.” The Appellate Division found that a simple warning such as “be careful” was inadequate, as a matter of law, to discharge the property owner’s duty to his business invitee. According to the Court, “[t]here may be a legitimate issue as to whether [the client] should have been permitted to leave by the side entrance at all, given the dangerous condition of the stairs.” Moreover, the “be careful” comment needed to be reviewed in the context of all other information. According to the Court, “[t]he warning did not, at least on its face, impart knowledge that the staircase was or could be dangerous” and “[a] reasonable jury could find that the warning alerted [the man] to the fact that the stairs may be slippery because it was raining, but not disclose that the stairs were steep, narrow and had no handrail.”

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