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Benedict v. Podwats

Decided: March 31, 1970.


Kilkenny, Labrecque and Leonard. The opinion of the court was delivered by Kilkenny, P.J.A.D.


[109 NJSuper Page 404] This personal injury negligence action was tried before a jury and resulted in a verdict in favor of plaintiff Joanne Benedict in the amount of $21,000 and in favor of her co-plaintiff husband Richard Benedict in the amount of $1500 for loss of consortium. Defendants' motion for a new trial was denied. Thereupon, defendants

filed this appeal from the judgment based upon the verdict and from the order denying a new trial.

The facts are simple, clear and, for all practical purposes, undisputed.

On the morning of October 19, 1967 plaintiff Joanne Benedict drove to the home of her sister, defendant Joyce Podwats, to do at her request a floral arrangement in a room divider. Joanne had the day before purchased the flowers for the arrangement, for which she was paid by her sister Joyce. Plaintiff let herself into Joyce's home -- not finding Joyce there at the time -- with a spare key picked up at the home of their mother who lived nearby.

While at defendants' home Joanne "straightened up," did some dusting, put out some laundry her sister had done, and then got ready to do the floral arrangement. She had done such arrangements for her sister on prior occasions. After hanging out the laundry, she returned to the house and continued arranging the flowers.

A short time later Joanne's mother stopped by the house and told her that it looked like rain. After her mother left, she decided that she would take the sheets off the line because it was getting quite windy. As plaintiff was walking toward the back yard, she fell at or near the edge of the patio and landed on her back on the sidewalk at the bottom of the steps, sustaining the injuries for which she and her husband were awarded damages by the jury, as noted above.

Joanne's legal status at the time of her injuries on defendants' premises was a crucial question at the trial. She had come to her sister's home at the latter's asking to make up the floral arrangement. She had bought the flowers for that purpose. Plaintiff testified that her sister had also asked her to "do anything I'd see to be done." So, she went to the basement, brought up a basket of laundry and hung out the laundry on the wash line near the patio. She cleaned around the house, made the floral arrangement and had her accident while going down the brick steps to reach

the clothes line and bring in the clothes. The patio, of course, led out to the back yard. In all, she was at her sister's home doing these chores for about two hours, from about 11:30 A.M. to about 1:30 P.M. The jury could properly find, as it evidently did, that plaintiff's fall was caused by a defective condition in and about the patio and brick steps.

The trial judge instructed the jury that the injured plaintiff was "an invitee," and explained the duty of an owner of property to invitees. He noted that the property owner must exercise reasonable care to have the premises in a safe condition, and the duty to the invitee includes a duty to make a reasonable inspection to discover defective conditions. Further, the jury was told that this duty of care was owed by defendant to plaintiff Mrs. Benedict and, to recover, the jury must find that there was a violation of that duty of care and that the violation was the cause of this accident and of the injury Mrs. Benedict sustained. The trial judge denied defendants' request to instruct the jury as to the "social guest" rule.

Defense counsel objected to that part of the charge whereby the jury was told "the plaintiff was an invitee." On appeal defendants urge two grounds for a reversal. First, they argue that the trial court erred in denying their motion for a judgment in their favor at the end of plaintiffs' case. It is their position that (a) Joanne, sister of Joyce, was a social guest or gratuitous licensee on defendants' premises at the time she fell, and (b) under our law, defendants did not breach their duty to Joanne to warn her of known dangerous conditions on the premises. Secondly, defendants maintain that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury as to the permissibility of a finding that Joanne was either a licensee or invitee at the time of her alleged fall and thus entitled to the standard of care commensurate with her status.

It is true that "the duty owed by an occupier of land to third persons coming thereon is ...

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