Torts (Slip and Fall): WHATLEY V. BLUE LICK APTS, LTD (8/4/2006 COA)

TORTS: PREMISES LIABILITY (business invitee duty not the same in landlord tenant situation involving common areas)

This personal injury claim arose from a resident’s slip and fall on icy wooden steps in a common area while taking out garbage.  The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendant dismissing the claim, and the plaintiff appealed claiming genuine issues existed as to material facts.

The circuit court judge (Judge Judith McDonald Burkman, Jefferson Circuit Court) erroneously relied solely upon Standard Oil Company v. Manis in reaching her decision.

Standard Oil addressed the duty owed by a landowner to a business invitee to keep outdoor walkways free of an accumulation of snow and ice.5 Kentucky’s highest court determined “that natural outdoor hazards which are as obvious to an invitee as to the owner of the premises do not constitute unreasonable risks to the [business invitee] which  the landowner has a duty to remove or warn against.”   

While this is the controlling law in a business invitee situation, the jurisprudence is somewhat different in a case involving a landlord and a tenant.

The general rule in Kentucky is that a landlord owes its tenants a duty of care to maintain all common areas under the landlord’s control in a safe condition.  In Davis, this Court distinguished Standard Oil by pointing out that a landlord owes a heightened duty of care to its tenants in contrast to the duty a landowner owes to a business invitee.

This does not impose an undue burden on the landlord. The landlord’s actions should be evaluated according to what is reasonable under all the circumstances. The landlord is not a guarantor of the tenants’ safety. The landlord’s actual or constructive notice of the hazardous conditions is, of course, a  significant factor. Other factors include, for example, the length of time the snow or ice had remained on the walkway and the landlord’s opportunity to take steps to remedy the condition. The tenant’s actions also need to be evaluated for their  reasonableness. Considerations include, for example, the necessity of traveling at that particular time, and the availability of other means of ingress and egress.

In this case, material issues of fact exist as to the reasonableness of the parties’ actions. Consequently, summary judgment was improper.

Michael Stevens,editor

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