We are discussing a premises liability lawsuit involving an incident at a Denny's in Western New York. Before we get to the particulars of the case and the various legal arguments, we wanted to go through some premises liability law basics.
So far, we have described the three categories of people who come onto a business' property: guests, or those who have been specifically invited; invitees, or the people you would reasonably expect to be there; and trespassers, or the people who either barge in or wander in, without the business' consent and often without the business owner's knowledge.
What businesses owe their visitors
The business owes each type of visitor a specific duty of care. Guests merit the highest duty of care, invitees a reasonable duty of care. The reasonable duty is the standard, really, since most of us are invitees at businesses we visit. That means that the business should keep the premises free of hazards it knows about as well as hazards it should know about.
For example, grocery stores put out "wet floor" signs after cleaning up a spill. The sign alerts customers, workers and service people to a known hazard, the risk of slipping and falling on the wet floor. Businesses have a duty in the winter to clear their entryway of snow and ice or to alert guests, at the very least, to the presence of snow and ice.
Trespassers do not merit the same courtesies. While the business owner has a duty to keep the premises free of booby traps that pose a foreseeable risk even to an unexpected passer-by, the business owner has no duty to protect a trespasser from an unforeseeable risk. A water pipe bursts in a grocery store after hours, right before a kid climbs in through a window to get a break from the weather. The kid slips and falls on the wet floor in front of the pipe. The grocery store is not negligent because the kid was a trespasser and the risk was unforeseeable.
We will get to the evening at Denny's, we promise, in our next post.
Source: Huffington Post, "When Is a Business Liable for Outsider Violence on Its Premises?" Brad Reid, Sept. 13, 2013