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Parks v. Rogers

June 18, 2003


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

This appeal deals with a homeowner's duty to protect unsuspecting social guests of dangers on the premises.

On the evening of June 14, 1996, Elizabeth Parks (plaintiff) visited for the first time a beach home owned by Peter and Helen Rogers (defendants). She had been invited to the home by the Rogers' son, Bruce, also a defendant. Parks arrived at the Rogers house at approximately 10:00 p.m. In the dark, she ascended a two-flight wooden stairway to the second-floor exterior deck of the home, where Bruce 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 stairway was not lit.

After several minutes of conversation, Parks decided to retrieve her overnight bag from the car. As she walked down the deck stairway and approached the landing between the two flights, she commented to the others that it was really dark. No one responded by turning on any lights. Because of the darkness, Parks held onto the handrail to guide her way. Unbeknownst to her, the handrail ended on the second to the last step, instead of extending several inches beyond the last step, as required by the applicable building code. Parks had never before visited the Rogers beach home and had not noticed during her earlier ascent in the dark that the banister fell short of the bottom of the stairs. Not realizing that there was an additional step before she reached the ground, Parks lost her footing, fell, and fractured her left ankle.

Parks filed a complaint alleging that defendants 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 trial court subsequently granted defendants' motion for summary judgment, reasoning that the defendants were not negligent as landowners for Parks' fall because they had no "actual knowledge" of the stairway's dangerous condition.

In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division affirmed the grant of summary judgment on a different ground. Specifically, the panel found that "a reasonable person living in the house would have observed that the stairway banister did not extend to the bottom of the steps by a material degree, and would have recognized the danger presented" and the "need for nighttime illumination." But the panel concluded that Parks was not entitled to relief because she was aware of the two allegedly dangerous conditions (inadequate length of banister and lack of illumination) that were responsible for her injuries.

The Supreme Court granted Parks' petition for certification.

HELD: A homeowner has a duty to warn an unwary social guest of a condition of the premises that the homeowner knows or has reason to know creates an unreasonable risk of injury.

1. 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. The law places on the landowner the duty to disclose to the social guest a dangerous condition or to correct it. Although a landowner does not have duty to scour the premises to discover latent defects, the social guest should be at no greater risk than the landowner, who by reason his knowledge of the property, has the ability to protect himself against a dangerous condition. Once it is established that a landowner knew of a particular condition of the property, the inquiry is not whether the defendant realized the condition held any risk but whether a reasonable man would be cognizant of it. But if the guest is aware of the dangerous condition or by a reasonable use of his faculties would observe it, the host is not liable because of the guest's failure to use due care. (pp. 6-8)

2. The Restatement imposes liability on the landowner if he has reason to know of a condition and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to social guests. The landowner is not the measure of whether a known condition of the property is dangerous. The inquiry is an objective one - whether the landowner should realize the condition posed an unreasonable risk of harm. (pp. 9-10)

3. In granting summary judgment, the trial court applied an incorrect standard when it found that plaintiff could not show that defendant had actual knowledge of the dangerous condition of the handrail. Plaintiff was only required to show that once defendants knew or had reason to know of the defective condition of the handrail, defendants should have recognized it posed an unreasonable risk of danger to a guest and, therefore, should have disclosed or removed the danger. (pp. 10-11)

4. Although the Appellate Division applied the correct standard with respect to the landowner's duty, it failed to give plaintiff the benefit of the most favorable view of the evidence in deciding the propriety of the summary judgment motion. It was not the court's function to weigh the evidence and determine the outcome but only to decide if a material dispute of fact existed. (pp. 12-14)

5. With genuine issues of material fact in dispute, the jury must decide whether the handrail was an inadequate length, whether defendants knew or had reason to know of the handrail's condition, whether that condition posed an unreasonable risk of harm, and whether plaintiff should have observed where the handrail ended through the reasonable use of her faculties. (p. 14)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED for proceedings ...

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