The law of premises liability law in North Carolina deals with the legal obligation of the owner/possessor of land to individuals on the premises. The law was changed in the seminal 1998 Supreme Court case Nelson v. Freeland, discussed below, which obligated ever owner/possessor of land to a duty of reasonable care.
There a different types of cases which come out of the law of premises liability, all of which are handled by our Charlotte personal injury attorney. The majority of cases are slip and falls, bar fights, and dog bites. Each of these areas are discussed in greater detail in separate articles.
In general, owners of property are not deemed insures of the property, i.e. they are not responsible for all injuries which take place on the property. They are responsible for injuries which take place stemming from conditions for which they knew or should have known posed a risk of harm to individuals on their property. This can be a difficult concept for people to grasp, especially if they have held long standing beliefs that owners of property are always responsible for every injury on their property. In essence, what must be shown is negligence.
What follows is a general discussion of the law in North Carolina. It provides an overview of how the law is applied.
The duty of care owed to another located on one’s property was examined by the North Carolina Supreme Court in the seminal case of Nelson v. Freeland 349 N.C. 615, 507 S.E.2d 882 (1998). The Court changed the law in North Carolina by “eliminat[ing] the distinction between licensees and invitees by requiring a standard of reasonable care toward all lawful visitors.” Id. at 632. Lawful visitors were defined by the Court as those that fall into the categories of invitees and licensees, those who “enter another’s land under the color of right.” Id. at 632.
Batts v. Home Telephone & Telegraph CO., 186 N.C. 120, 118 S.E. 893 (1923); Monroe v. Railroad, 151 N.C. 374, 66 S.E. 315. In Batts, the defendant owned a private alleyway that had been used by the public as a passage to access the main road prior to the plaintiff’s injury. The Supreme Court held that, “where the owner or occupant of a premises, with knowledge and for a long period of time, permits the public to use the premises without objection, for the purpose of traveling across the same on a well established and safe path or highway, he cannot, without giving notice, render the premises unsafe to the injury of those who have used such highway, and have no notice of the changed condition, without being responsible for the resulting injury.” Id. at 894.
The Supreme Court affirmed the Batts decision in the 1930 case of Jones v. Southern RY CO. et al, 199 N.C. 1, 153 S.E. 637 (1930). In Jones, the defendant owned a footpath that had been used by the public for years, prior to the plaintiff’s injury. The defendants, knowing the path was so used by the community failed to maintain it and further filled its holes with loose dirt, placing the walking public in greater danger. The Court specifically noted that, “the Defendants, knowing the path was regularly used by pedestrians, placed upon the roadbed a quantity of loose dirt, which increased the hazard of using the path, and that they neglected to give notice or warning, actual or constructive, of the changed conditions.” Id. at 639.
The Supreme Court in Nelson v. Freeland, in excluding the category of unexpected trespasser from those owed the duty of reasonable care, specifically affirmed long standing case law that held owners and occupiers liable for willful and wanton conduct. The Court stated, “we believe that abandoning the status of trespasser may place an unfair burden on a landowner who has no reason to expect a trespasser’s presence… a trespasser has no basis for claiming protection beyond refraining from willful injury.” Id. at 632. The Court maintained owner liability for willful and wanton conduct and carved out an exception for expected trespassers.
The North Carolina Courts have continually defined willful and wanton conduct. Nelson v. Freeland 349 N.C. 615, 507 S.E.2d 882 (1998); Jones v. Southern RY. CO et al, 199 N.C. 1, 153 S.E. 637 (1930); Foster v. Hyman, 197 N.C. 189, 148 S.E. 36 (1929); Howard v. Jackson, 120 N.C. App. 243, 461 S.E.2d 793 (1995); Siders v. Gibbs, 39 N.C.App. 183, 249 S.E.2d 858 (1978).
In Siders, the Supreme Court stated “an act is done willfully when it is done purposely and deliberately in violation of law or when it is done knowingly and of set purpose, or when the mere will has free play, without yielding to reason.” Id. at 186. The Supreme Court went on to quote from Bailey v. R.R., 149 N.C. 169, 62 S.E. 912 stating, “the true conception of willful negligence involves a deliberate purpose not to discharge some duty necessary to the safety of the person or property of another, which duty the person owing it has assumed by contract, or which is imposed by operation of law.” Siders at 186. The Court in Siders went on to define wanton conduct quoting from Ballew v. R.R., 186 N.C. 704, 706 120 S.E. 334 (1923). The Court stated, “a act is wanton when it is done of wicked purpose or when done needlessly, manifesting a reckless indifference to the rights of others.” Siders at 187. The Nelson Court stated that an act is wanton when “performed intentionally with a reckless indifference to the injuries likely to result.” Nelson at 618. In Starr v. Clapp, 40 N.C.App 142, 252 S.E.2d 220 the Court vacated and remanded a jury verdict for plaintiff that found defendant willfully and wantonly injured plaintiff trespasser by stringing up a metal wire over a dirt path that plaintiff rode his ATV. In finding the defendant’s actions not willful or wanton the Court took pains to note that “the evidence further discloses that defendants did not know (or even have reason to suspect) that plaintiff or anyone else had ever ridden a motorcycle on their property… Finally it is very clear that we are not here faced with a situation where a landowner, expecting the arrival of trespassers, deliberately creates an inherently dangerous condition and leaves it with a deceptive appearance of safety in order to trap or harm intruders.” Id. at 148. Judge Hendrick, in dissenting from the majority felt that there was enough evidence in this much less egregious case to find the defendants acted willfully and wantonly to plaintiff trespasser. The Judge noted in his dissent that he focused on whether there is any evidence to support a finding that the defendants
“knew the probable consequences” of their act and whether they were “recklessly, wantonly or intentionally indifferent to the results.” While the defendants testified that they had no actual knowledge that the minor plaintiff had ever ridden his motorbike on their private drive, there is ample evidence in the record tending to show that automobiles, motorcycles, and even horses, were ridden by trespassers on the roadway in question on numerous occasions over a period of many months after the defendants purchased the property, and while the defendants were working on the house located on the property. Although there is evidence in the record that the 3/8 inch aluminum cable was easily visible at a distance of 180 feet, there is also evidence tending to show that the cable blended in with the surroundings and was barely visible even to a person who knew it was there.
This evidence, when considered in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, gives rise to the following inferences: (1) that the defendants knew that trespassers were riding motorcycles or trail bikes over their private driveway; (2) that the 3/8 inch aluminum cable was difficult to see, even if one knew it was there; and (3) that the cable stretched across the driveway at a height of 31/2 to 4 feet would be dangerous to persons riding motorcycles or trail bikes. These inferences would permit the jury to find that the defendants knew the probable consequences of their act, and that they were recklessly, wantonly, and heedlessly indifferent to the results in creating the condition that proximately caused the minor plaintiff’s injuries. Id. at 149, 150.
An equally divided Supreme Court heard the case with the seventh justice, Justice Brock, unable to participate due to illness. As such, the question of defendant’s willful and wanton conduct was affirmed without precedential value.
Premises liability cases are very fact specific. A slight fact variation will change the entire case. As such, it is suggested you speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer to discuss your rights. Please contact us to discuss your case.