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Parks v. Rogers

176 N.J. 491, 825 A.2d 1128 (2003)

LANDOWNER’S LIABILITY; LATENT DEFECTS—A landowner need not scour its property for latent defects, but once it discovers a dangerous condition, it is liable to an injured guest unless that guest would be cognizant of the same danger and failed to use due care.

A homeowner’s son invited a guest to visit his parents’ beach home for the first time. She arrived at night and climbed a two- flight stairway where the son and another friend were waiting. “A landing separated the two flights of stairs. The deck was dark with the only illumination coming from interior lights within the house. A lamppost at the base of the deck or stairway was not lit.” She arrived on the deck safely, but then decided to retrieve her overnight bag. As she walked down the deck stairway and approached the landing, she commented “that it was really dark.” No one turned on the lights. “Because of the darkness, [she] held onto the handrail to guide her way.” She didn’t know that the handrail ended on the second to last step, contrary to the applicable building code. She took the additional step, lost her footing, fell, and fractured her left ankle. She sued, claiming that the homeowners were negligent “by failing to maintain the beach house in a reasonably safe condition and by failing to correct the hazardous condition of the stairway leading to the deck.” The lower court held against her, finding that the homeowners had no “actual knowledge” of the stairway’s dangerous condition. The Appellate Division affirmed relief in favor of the homeowners on a different ground, feeling that the injured woman “was not entitled to relief because she was aware of the two allegedly dangerous conditions (inadequate length of banister and lack of illumination) responsible for her injuries.

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s judgment, remanding the matter to the lower court. The scope of a “landowner’s duty to a third person coming onto his property is defined by that person’s status as a business visitor, social guest, or trespasser.” Landowners have the duty to disclose to social guests a dangerous condition or to correct it. A landowner “does not have duty to scour the premises to discover latent defects,” but once a landowner knows of a dangerous condition, the question is whether a reasonable guest would be cognizant of the same danger. If a guest “is aware of the dangerous condition or by reasonable use of his faculties would observe it, the host is not liable because of the guest’s failure to use due care.” The inquiry as to whether a known condition of the property is dangerous is an objective one. Therefore, the lower court was wrong when it looked only to whether the landowner had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition. All that the injured woman needed to do was to show that once the property owner “knew or had reason to know of the defective condition of the handrail, [the property owner] should have recognized it posed an unreasonable risk of danger to a guest and, therefore, should have been disclosed or removed the danger.” On the other hand, even if the Appellate Division applied the correct standard, the Supreme Court believed the Appellate Division “failed to give [the injured woman] the benefit of the most favorable view of the evidence in deciding the propriety of the summary judgment motion.” Consequently, because there were material issues of fact in dispute, it was for a jury to decide “whether the handrail was an inadequate length, whether [the property owner] knew or had reason to know of the handrail’s condition, whether that condition posed an unreasonable risk of harm, and whether [the inured woman] should have observed where the handrail ended through the reasonable use of her faculties.”

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