Premise Liability Verdict in Favor of the Plaintiff Affirmed by the Appeals Court of Massachusetts in Bernier v. Smitty's Sports Pub, Inc.
In 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 injuries. See 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 Only.” Id.
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.