Difference in Factual Circumstance Can Change Invitee’s Legal Status

My favorite argument to draft and argue in a premises liability case is that an invitee becomes a trespasser when he/she exceeds the scope of an invitation by traveling into an area that he/she is not intended to be.

Think about it. If I hire you to fix my refrigerator, and you end up falling while trying to climb the tree in my yard, should I really be liable? Well, the recent trend of appellate court opinions making it harder for defendants to prevail in these types of premises liability cases has finally ended.

In Bredow v Land & Co., Docket No. 315219, a wholesale distributor of plumbing supplies employed the plaintiff as a project manager in one of its pricing centers located in a rented warehouse that was part of the facility owned and managed by the defendants. On Dec. 26, 2008, the plaintiff and a co-worker chose to embark on the task of clearing snow and ice from an area near the building’s entrance. The plaintiff was injured when large amounts of snow and ice fell from the building’s roof onto the plaintiff, while he was clearing large icicles descending from the roof.

Before reaching any of the parties’ arguments, the Michigan Court Appeals first found it necessary to decide plaintiff’s status as an entrant on the property in order to ascertain the duty owed by the defendants. Generally speaking, the status of invitee is conferred upon individuals entering the property of another for business purposes. However, an individual’s status as an invitee on the property can change if the individual exceeds the scope of his or her invitation (i.e., leaving the location encompassed by the invitation, or acting in a manner inconsistent with the scope and purpose of the invitation).  

In Bredow, both parties operated under the assumption that the plaintiff was an invitee. However, the court determined that at best, the plaintiff was a licensee, and as a licensee, that the defendant owed the plaintiff a reduced standard of care which did not include an affirmative obligation to make the premises safer or to warn the plaintiff of the danger posed by knocking down icicles. 

Specifically, the appellate court noted that when the plaintiff entered the premises for the purpose of working in the pricing center he was an invitee. Thus, the court held, the plaintiff could “enter the warehouse and carryout his business function there in the form of his work for [the defendant wholesale distributor].”

However, when the plaintiff embarked on the unsolicited act of clearing icicles – a task that was completely unrelated to his function at the wholesale distributor and to his purpose for being on the property – the plaintiff “lost his status as an invitee and became, at best, a mere licensee.” Therefore, the only potential duty the defendant owed to the plaintiff, the court held, would be to warn him of a hidden danger on the property involving an unreasonable risk of harm, and that duty only existed if the plaintiff did not know or have a reason to know of the danger involved.

The court concluded that the plaintiff knew or had reason to know of the danger posed by falling snow and ice because: (1) he heard ice and snow falling from the roof; (2) he described the process of pushing icicles as “dangerous;” and (3) he admitted that there were massive icicles and large chunks of ice on the ground. Therefore, the court held that the defendant owed no duty to protect him from the condition or warn him of the hazard.

This case reminds us that the plaintiff's legal status is the first thing that should be considered in virtually any kind of claim.  That legal status may very well change from the beginning of the factual circumstances to the end.

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