Slip-and-fall accident victim was not trespassing as a matter of law

In Boyrie v. E & G Property Services , the District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed the Superior Court's ruling, which summarily denied the plaintiff's personal injury claim based on a finding that she was trespasser at the time of her slip-and-fall accident.

Under District of Columbia law, landowners owe a duty of reasonable care to invitees and licensees lawfully on the premises, but trespassers sustaining injuries on the property can only recover for "intentional, wanton, or willful injury or the maintenance of a hidden engine of destruction."

Background

The plaintiff filed suit against the owner and manager of an apartment building, claiming that she slipped and fell and broke her ankle as a result of the owner's negligence in failing to remove ice and snow from the property. The facts of the case were undisputed by the parties. A friend of the plaintiff made arrangements with a third party, who was a residential tenant living at the apartment building, to repair the plaintiff's broken television. Months later the plaintiff and the friend went to the building to check on the status of the repairs without notifying the third party beforehand that they were coming. The third party did not respond when they rang the doorbell by the front door of the building. They then tried calling out from a sidewalk next to the building in an effort to get the third party's attention, but still got no response. They then left the sidewalk and walked behind the building to a dark, unlit area which did not provide access to the building. The area was paved with concrete and resembled a parking lot. The plaintiff's friend tried calling out again to the third party. Minutes later, when the plaintiff decided to leave, she slipped and fell in the paved area.

The Superior Court granted summary judgment for the owners-a procedure which permits a trial court to summarily decide a case without a trial where the relevant facts are undisputed and the party is entitled to judgment under the law. The trial court held as a matter of law that the plaintiff was a trespasser when she sustained her injuries and the owners therefore did not owe her a duty of reasonable care. The plaintiff appealed.

The decision by the Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals ruled that the facts did not support the Superior Court's conclusion that the plaintiff was a trespasser as a matter of law and remanded the case for trial. The plaintiff was admittedly on the premises without an express invitation from either the owners or from the third party who lived there, but that fact alone did not necessitate a finding that the plaintiff was a trespasser when she walked onto the paved area adjacent to the sidewalk. A reasonable person, said the appellate court, could have concluded that the paved area was open to members of the general public or at least to someone attempting to visit a tenant in the apartment building. Even though the area was dark and unlit, there was no evidence that access to the area was restricted in any way. The area looked like a parking lot, as it was located immediately behind the building and adjacent to the public sidewalk.

Individuals who have sustained injuries as a result of the negligent acts or other wrongful conduct of another are urged to seek the advice of an experienced personal injury attorney in order to protect their legal rights.