Can I Sue My Friend if I am Injured as a House Guest?

Submitted by New Jersey Personal Injury Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

New Jersey’s Appellate Division recently produced an unpublished opinion regarding a house guest that was injured as a result of tripping and falling on the threshold of the front door.  The plaintiff was a guest at the defendants’ home.  The parties had been friends for eight years.  Prior to this incident the plaintiff had visited the defendants’ home many times without incident, and had used the front door every time.  The door threshold had a metal weather strip on top of wood which was about one to one and a half inches above the floor.  The room she was entering was not lit at the time. The plaintiff caught her heel on the weather strip, causing her injury.  Plaintiff had never once complained about the threshold before.  Defendants had owned the home for thirty-seven years and the condition of the threshold was unchanged, and neither they nor anyone else tripped over it in the manner that the plaintiff did.

Nonetheless, the plaintiff sued her friends, the homeowners, for her damages.  A homeowner’s duty to a person on his or her property depends on whether that person is a business visitor, social guest, or a trespasser.  In this case, the plaintiff was a social guest.  When entertaining social guests, a homeowner has a duty to warn of conditions of the premises that the homeowner knows or has reason to know creates an unreasonable risk of injury.

The Court also considers the relationship of the parties in light of the surrounding circumstances to determine whether it is fair and just to impose upon the homeowner a duty of reasonable care in regards to the risk of harm.  The Court balances four factors:

  1. the relationship of the parties,
  2. the nature of the attendant risk,
  3. the opportunity and ability to exercise care, and
  4. the public interest in the proposed solution. A homeowner is not held liable if he or she is not aware of an unsafe condition.

The plaintiff’s case was dismissed because the homeowners had not had a problem in thirty-seven years with the threshold.  Even though it was dark, plaintiff could have easily asked the homeowners to turn on a light.  Therefore, the homeowners were not aware that the threshold created a risk, and the plaintiff could have easily remedied the lack of lighting issue herself.

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