WHAT DUTY DOES A KANSAS PROPERTY OWNER OWE TO GUESTS ON THE PROPERTY?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Jones v. Hansen, 254 Kan. 499, 867 P.2d 303 (1994).
This case addresses the following issue:
What duty does a Kansas property owner owe to guests on the property?
This case marked the modernization of Kansas premise liability law. Id. at 500. Traditionally, the duty a property owner owed to a guest depended on why the individual was on the property—as a social guest, as a business guest, or as an uninvited trespasser. Id. at 502-03. However, this distinction led to undesirable results, where friends and family could not get redress for dangers in the property that caused serious injuries. Id. at 505. To correct this, the court changed the law to treat both social guests and business guests the same: the property owner must “exercise reasonable care under all the circumstances.” Id. at 509.
In this case, Plaintiff was invited over to Defendant’s home to play bridge. Id. at 502. She sat out a hand and began admiring artwork Defendant had throughout her home. Id. Defendant told Plaintiff that she had more artwork in a room in the back of her home. Id. Plaintiff walked through the poorly lit room, focused on the art hanging on the wall. Id. Plaintiff did not see a staircase leading down, partially because of the dim lighting and partially because large bookcases hid the drop in elevation. Id. Plaintiff fell down the stairs and suffered severe injuries. Id.
Under Kansas law before this case, the duty a property owner owed varied based on why the guest was on the property. Id. at 502-03. If the individual is uninvited and unwelcomed, he is a trespasser, and the property owner need only “refrain from willfully, wantonly, or recklessly injuring” the trespasser. Id. at 503. If the individual is a social guest, such as a friend or family member, he is a licensee. Id. The property owner need only “refrain from willfully, intentionally, or recklessly injuring” the individual. Id. Finally, if the individual is on the property for business purposes—such as a customer at a retail store—he is an invitee, and the property owner must use “reasonable or ordinary care” to protect the individual. Id. This includes “a duty to protect and warn an invitee against any danger that may be reasonably anticipated” by the property owner. Id.
The court noted that several jurisdictions had done away with these classifications, particularly the difference between a social guest and business guest. Id. at 504. This change reflects how society views a property owner’s obligations: most individuals would expect a social host to exercise reasonable care to ensure guests are safe, rather than simply refraining from being reckless. Id. at 505.
Considering the matter, along with how society considers what a property owner should do to ensure the safety of social guests, the court decided it was time for a change. Id. at 509. Unlike statutory laws, which are written by the Kansas Legislature, these standards are developed in “common law” and derived from decisions of the courts. Id. Thus, the court is free to change course when compelling reasons exist to do so. Id. Thus, the court determined that both social guests and business guests should be entitled to “reasonable care under the circumstances” from the property owner. Id. at 510. This could include properly maintaining the property, warning of known dangers that the guest may be unaware of, and any other reasonable steps based on the circumstances. Id. Trespassers, however, remained the same—the property owner simply must refrain from willfully harming a trespasser. Id.