October 1, 2018
appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division,
Middlesex County, Docket No. L-3473-14.
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).
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
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).
Judges Fasciale, Gooden Brown and Rose.
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
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.
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.
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]
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).
on plaintiffs appeal, we reverse the judgment and remand for
a new trial on all issues. We otherwise affirm on John's
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.
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
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 ...