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Maryland Court Analyses Legal Status of Plaintiff in Premises Liability Case

In some situations, homeowners may be liable for a personal injury that occurs on their property.  The care they must take to avoid liability depends on the status of the injured party.  In a May 3, 2021 case, the plaintiff filed a Maryland negligence suit against her neighbor after falling down the steps of her neighbor’s porch.  The issue before the Court of Special Appeals turned on the legal status of the plaintiff at the time of her injury.

The plaintiff in the case had returned home from work that day and found she was unable to open her front door.  She walked to her neighbor’s house and her neighbor’s grandson, who had answered the door, lent the plaintiff a metal knife.  After successfully unjamming her door, the plaintiff went back to her neighbor’s house later that day to return it.  After handing the knife to her neighbor, the plaintiff turned to leave down the staircase descending from the front porch.  She lost her balance and fell, suffering serious injuries to her leg.

The plaintiff filed a premises liability suit, alleging that her injuries were caused by her neighbor’s negligent maintenance of the premises.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant, finding that the plaintiff was a bare licensee and that the defendant had not breached any duty to the plaintiff.  The plaintiff appealed that decision to the higher court.

Premises liability is based on common-law principles of negligence, so the plaintiff must establish the four elements required in any negligence action: (1) a duty of the defendant to protect the plaintiff from injury, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) actual injury or loss, and (4) that her injury proximately resulted from the defendant’s breach of duty.  However, the particular duty owed by a property owner in a premises liability case is determined by the plaintiff’s legal status at the time of the injury.

In general, the highest duty is owed to invitees, while at the bottom are trespassers and bare licensees, to whom a property owner owes a duty to refrain from willful or wanton misconduct or entrapment.  A bare licensee is an individual who enters a property with the owner’s consent, for the individual’s own purpose and convenience, but not as a social visit.

The appeals court agreed that the plaintiff was a bare licensee, finding that she was not a social guest on the occasion of her visit to the defendant’s home, but rather, was returning a knife the plaintiff had borrowed exclusively for her own benefit.  As a bare licensee, the only duty owed to the plaintiff was that the defendant not willfully or wantonly injury her.  Insofar as the record contained no evidence of same, the court affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

At Foran & Foran, P.A., our Maryland lawyers can provide trustworthy legal advice after an injury or accident.  We assist people seeking compensation for damages in a wide range of negligence and personal injury actions, including premises liability and medical malpractice.  Contact us online or call (301) 441-2022 and schedule a free consultation to discuss your case with a personal injury lawyer.

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