Ainsworth v. Chandler – Premise Liability Claim Success Hinges on Plaintiff Status

One of the first things our Fort Myers premises liability lawyers will do in reviewing a trip-and-fall case is to determine the legal status of the plaintiff at the time of the incident.
That is, was the plaintiff a business invitee? A licensee? Or a trespasser? For each classification, the level of duty owed by a defendant is going to vary, which means plaintiff legal status can guide the entire course of a case.

The highest degree of duty owed is to that of a business invitee, who is on the property for the financial benefit of the property owner. A prime example would be a customer at the grocery store. A licensee, meanwhile, is someone who is on the property for some purpose other than commercial. An example would be a social guest. An finally, a trespasser would be someone who did not have permission to be on the property. Trespassers can sue property owners for injuries, but usually only if the owner knew trespassers routinely came on site and failed to address or warn of a hazard that wasn’t obvious. The one exception is children, and the most common example in Florida would be a child who enters an unprotected swimming pool area.

The most common types of claim fall into the first two categories. Sometimes, the distinction is rather straightforward. However, as the case of Ainsworth v. Chandler illustrates, there is always potential for the answer to be convoluted.

In this case, plaintiff was injured while descending the stairs of an electronics supply store, where she had just purchased four smoke detectors. A coil of wire she hadn’t previously noticed caught her foot, and she tripped, slamming hard onto the ground. Her vision has since never been the same. She also suffered persistent headaches, tooth loss and a severe sprain to her ankle.

It was later revealed the store owner had been cited several times by code inspectors for having potentially hazardous material in the hallway.

This might seem an easy claim. But at the time of the incident, she was at the store visiting with her boyfriend (now husband) who owned the store. The store owner’s insurance carrier contended that made her a social guest, rather than a business invitee, which meant he owed her a lesser duty of care – a duty to either address or warn of the condition if known, as opposed to being required to simply exercise a reasonable duty of care (at least according to Vermont state law, where this case unfolded).

Trial court sided with defendant, granting summary judgment after finding owner did not breach his duty of care to plaintiff as a social guest/licensee.

However, the Vermont Supreme Court upon review found the facts do not conclusively establish plaintiff’s status as a licensee, as opposed to an invitee. That means the trial court was incorrect in granting summary judgment, which is only proper when the case can be decided as a matter of law rather than a matter of fact. Because triers of fact remained, the trip-and-fall lawsuit was remanded for trial.

Call Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, at 1-800-646-1210.

Additional Resources:
Ainsworth v. Chandler, Aug. 29, 2014, Vermont Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Hillstone v. P.F. Chang’s – Slip-and-Fall Case Delves Into Commercial Lease Law, Sept. 15, 2014, Fort Myers Premises Liability Lawyer Blog

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