Premises liability laws ensure that property owners are held responsible for hazardous conditions that injure their invited guests or other members of the public who are lawfully on the premises. With respect to invitees, the property owner must exercise “ordinary care in the keeping the premises and approaches safe.” If the injured party is a “licensee” – someone who is permitted on the property but is not considered a customer or “servant” of the owner – then the owner is only liable for causing “willful or wanton injury.”
Harrison v. Legacy Housing, LP
Many premises liability cases turn on the status of the injured plaintiff, i.e. whether they an invitee or licensee. A recent decision by a federal judge in Macon offers a helpful illustration of this distinction. The plaintiff in this case was helping a friend perform work in an empty warehouse. After the plaintiff sustained a serious injury, he attempted to sue the warehouse’s owner under the theory he was an “invitee.”
Here is briefly what happened. The defendant is a Texas-based company that manufactures mobile homes. In 2015, the defendant purchased the assets of a defunct mobile-home business in Putnam County, Georgia. A third party–the plaintiff’s friend–contacted the defendant about setting up a partnership. The friend wanted to use one of the defendant’s empty Georgia warehouses to establish a molding and laminating division, which would then sell its finished product back to the defendant at a discount.
The friend wanted to clear some shelving from the warehouse so he could “get a better view of the space.” The defendant offered to have one of its employees assist the friend. But the friend opted instead to invite the plaintiff, who also worked in the laminating business, to help.
On the day in question, the two men, together with another person they knew and who was also not working for the defendant, proceeded to dismantle the shelves in the warehouse. At one point, the plaintiff chose to utilize an industrial ladder he found in the warehouse to reach some of the higher shelves. Neither of the other men were aware that this ladder was even present. As the plaintiff worked on the ladder, it “snapped back” and toppled over. The plaintiff fell to the ground and seriously injured his legs.
The plaintiff filed a premises liability lawsuit against the defendant as the owner of the warehouse and, presumably, the defective ladder in question. The judge overseeing the case dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit, however, explaining that there was no theory of liability that could hold the defendant responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. At no point was the plaintiff an “agent” or “invitee” of the defendant. Indeed, the judge said the undisputed evidence showed that nobody who actually worked for the defendant knew about or authorized the plaintiff’s presence in the warehouse that day. (Remember, the plaintiff’s friend was attempting to enter into a business relationship with the defendant, but was not actually its agent.) At best the plaintiff was a “licensee,” and the defendant took no action to intentionally injure him.