Bernier v. Smitty’s Sports Pub, Inc., the Appeals Court of Massachusetts ruled that a bar patron who mistakenly
entered the basement of a business through a door marked “Employees
Only” was not a trespasser. See
Bernier v. Smitty’s Sports Pub, Inc., 90 Mass. App. Ct. 472 No. 14-P-1967. The court held that since the bar
patron was lawfully on the premise, the landowner owed him a duty of reasonable
care in maintaining the property in a reasonably safe condition. See
Mounsey v. Ellard, 363 Mass. 693, 695-707, 297 N.E.2d. 43 (1973). However, a landowner only
owes a trespasser the legal duty to refrain from willful, wanton or reckless
conduct that could cause injury.
Id. at 707.
In March of 2010, a bar patron mistakenly entered the basement of a business
through a door marked “Employees Only,” as he thought it was
the men’s bathroom. The “Employees Only” door was located
near doors similarly colored and marked, “Gentleman” and “Ladies.”
All three doors were located in a hallway that had lottery game machines
for the patron’s enjoyment. Although the “Employees Only”
door was usually locked during business hours, it was not locked at the
time of the incident. The door marked “Employees Only” led
directly onto an unlit concrete staircase and upon entry, the bar patron
fell nearly three feet down to the middle of the staircase. The bar patron
sustained multiple and severe injuries which subsequently led to his death
approximately two weeks later.
The defendant argued that the decedent, although initially lawfully on
the premise, became a trespasser upon entry of the basement through the
door marked “Employees Only.” In the alternative, the defendant
argued that the issue of the decedent’s status, as either a person
lawfully on the premise or as a trespasser was a question of fact that
should be submitted to the jury.
In affirming the trial court’s judgment, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts
held that as a matter of law, the decedent was lawfully present on the
premises and he did not become a trespasser when he entered the basement
through the door marked “Employees Only.” See
Bernier v. Smitty’s Sports Pub, Inc., 90 Mass. App. Ct. 472 No. 14-P-1967. The Appeals Court held that since
the facts of the case were not in dispute, the decedent’s status
as either a person lawfully on the premise or as a trespasser was a question
of law for the court and not a question of fact for the jury.
Id. The Appeals Court also held that since the decedent was lawfully on the
premises, the defendant owed him a duty of reasonable care. See
Mounsey v. Ellard, 363 Mass. 693, 695-707, 297 N.E.2d. 43 (1973). Under this standard of
care, a landowner “must act as a reasonable man in maintaining his
property in a reasonable safe condition in view of all the circumstances,
including the likelihood of injury to others, the seriousness of injury,
and the burden of avoiding the risk.”
Id. at 708.
The Appeals Court stated that the jury had been presented with sufficient
evidence to conclude that the defendant was negligent in the maintenance
of the property and that this negligence caused the plaintiff’s
Bernier v. Smitty’s Sports Pub, Inc., 90 Mass. App. Ct. 472 No. 14-P-1967. Thus, the court concluded that
the defendant created a dangerous situation by marking all the doors with
the same color and signage, and by failing to lock the door marked “Employees
This is a landmark decision because it broadens the definition of a lawful
visitor, which is advantageous for plaintiffs who have been injured while
on property of another. Under this ruling, a lawful visitor will not become
a trespasser when he mistakenly enters a prohibited area of the premises
which was not clearly identified as restricted. This decision will assist
future plaintiffs who are injured due to the negligence or wrongdoing
of another when they mistakenly enter a restricted area of the premises.