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Piech v. Layendecker

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

October 19, 2018

STACI PIECH, Plaintiff-Appellant/ Cross-Respondent,
v.
GLENN LAYENDECKER, Defendant-Respondent, and JOHN LAYENDECKER, Defendant-Respondent/ Cross-Appellant, and ANN LAYENDECKER, Defendant.

          Argued October 1, 2018

          On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-3473-14.

          John R. Gorman argued the cause for appellant/cross-respondent Staci Piech (Lutz, Shafranski, Gorman and Mahoney PA, attorneys; John R. Gorman, of counsel and on the brief).

          David P. Skand argued the cause for respondent Glenn Layendecker (Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, LLC, attorneys; Robert P. Zoller, of counsel and on the brief; David P. Skand, on the brief).

          John A. Camassa argued the cause for respondent/ cross-appellant John Layendecker (Camassa Law Firm, PC, attorneys; John A. Camassa, of counsel; Christopher M. Brady, on the brief).

          Before Judges Fasciale, Gooden Brown and Rose.

          OPINION

          FASCIALE, J.A.D.

         This personal injury social-guest liability case deals with flawed jury charges, the erroneous admission of subjective lay opinion testimony into evidence, the proper denial of summary judgment, and the inapplicability of the law of the case doctrine.

         Plaintiff Staci Piech was attending a fortieth birthday party hosted by John Layendecker (John) for his son Glenn Layendecker (Glenn) (collectively defendants). Plaintiff - an innocent bystander - sustained permanent nerve damage and scarring when an eighteen-to-twenty inch thin hollow metal pole -that Glenn used to strike a pinata - broke off and struck her arm (the incident). The injury was completely unrelated to any dangerous condition or defect on the property itself.

         Plaintiff appeals from a judgment of no cause of action, and from an order denying her motion for a new trial. John cross-appeals from an interlocutory order denying his motion for summary judgment, and from the trial judge's oral refusal to apply the law of the case doctrine. We agree with plaintiffs primary contentions that the judge provided flawed jury instructions on the issue of John's standard of care, and that the judge erred by allowing Glenn, and other eyewitnesses, to opine that they subjectively believed the incident was essentially unforeseeable.

         Here, as to the host's standard of care owed to plaintiff, the judge charged both Model Jury Charges (Civil), 5.20F(4), "Social Guest - Defined and General Duty Owed" (rev. Dec. 2014) (the Model Charge), and Exception (2) to the Model Charge. That exception states that "[i]n cases where the host is conducting some 'activity' on the premises at the time of [the] guest's presence, [the host] is under an obligation to exercise reasonable care for the protection of [the] guest."

         We hold that when a plaintiff sustains an injury resulting solely from an "activity" on the host's property - as opposed to an injury caused by a combination of that activity and a physical dangerous condition on the property - then the judge should only charge Exception (2). Here, as to the host's standard of care owed to plaintiff, it was improper for the judge to instruct the jury in accordance with the Model Charge that John had a general duty to warn against dangerous conditions to the property itself, and also charge Exception (2).

         Thus, on plaintiffs appeal, we reverse the judgment and remand for a new trial on all issues. We otherwise affirm on John's cross-appeal.

         I.

         Plaintiff maintains that this case does not involve injuries caused by the existence of a dangerous physical condition on John's property. If that were the case, then the judge would have been obligated to give the standard social guest premises liability jury charge - the Model Charge. But plaintiff contends - as she maintained at trial - that her injuries did not stem from a dangerous physical condition on the property, but solely from the pinata activities that John hosted in his backyard. Plaintiff argues that this difference required the judge to charge the jury with only Exception (2) - that John failed to use reasonable care for her protection.

         In a typical case involving allegations that a social guest sustained injuries due to a dangerous condition on a landowner's property, a judge, as here, would give this charge:

A social guest is someone invited to . . . her host's premises. The social guest must accept the premises of . . . her host as . . . she finds them. In other words, the host has no obligation to make his . . .home safer for his . . . guest than for himself.... The host also is not required to inspect his . . . premises to discover defects that might cause injury to his . . . guest.
If, however, the host knows or has reason to know of some artificial or natural condition on the premises which could pose an unreasonable risk of harm to his . . . guest and that his . . . guest could not be reasonably expected to discover it, the owner . . . owes the social guest a duty to exercise reasonable care to make the condition safe or to give warning to his . . . guest of its presence and of the risk involved. In other words, although a social guest is required to accept the premises as the host maintains them, . . . she is entitled to the host's knowledge of dangerous conditions on the premises. On the other hand, where the guest knows ...

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