Social Guests

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July 30, 2009

Standard of Care Owed to a Social Invitee

The invited social guest is a category of licensee that is worthy of special consideration. Even though expressly invited onto the premises by the landowner host, a social guest is not really considered an invitee at all. Instead, the majority of American jurisdictions have traditionally treated the invited social guest as a mere licensee. Consequently, the only duty owed to the social guest is the duty to warn of hidden dangers actually known to the host. Typically, this rule has been applied even where the guest performs some incidental service for the benefit of the host. The classification of a particular entrant as either a social guest or an invitee is ordinarily a question of law, unless the underlying facts are in dispute.

The rationale for classifying invited social guests as licensees is based upon the assumption that such an entrant implicitly agrees to accept the premises on the same basis as would any member of the host's own family. Thus, it is argued, if the host ordinarily does not inspect the premises for defects in order to protect members of his own household, surely an invited social guest cannot expect such an inspection on the occasion of a single visit.

Not surprisingly, the "social guest rule" has been the subject of severe criticism, even in jurisdictions that still retain the traditional common law classifications of trespasser, licensee, and invitee. These critics suggest that because the guest has been expressly urged onto the premises by the host, it is justifiable to expect that the host will conduct some reasonable inspection for dangers in anticipation of the guest's arrival.

As a result of such criticism, invited social guests have been re-classified as true invitees in a few jurisdictions. In other jurisdictions, courts have avoided the harshness of the "social guest rule" by finding some "economic" benefit to the host as a result of the guest's presence on the premises, thereby elevating the social guest to the higher duty status of invitee. Still other courts have left such questions to the discretion of the jury, establishing, in effect, a standard of "reasonable care under the circumstances."

Connecticut is one of such jurisdictions in which social guests have been re-classified as true invitees.[1] Invitees fall into certain general categories. A public invitee is a person who is invited to enter or remain on land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is held open to the public. A business invitee is a person who is invited to enter or remain on land for a purpose directly or indirectly connected with business dealing with the possessor of land. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557a, which provides: "The standard of care owed to a social invitee shall be the same as the standard of care owed to a business invitee," in effect recognized a third kind of invited, namely, the social invitee. The distinction between one who is an invitee and one who is merely a licensee turns largely on whether the visitor has received an invitation, as opposed to permission, from the possessor of land, to enter the land or remain on the land. Although an invitation itself does not establish the status of an invitee, it is essential to it. Mere permission, as distinguished from invitation, is sufficient to make the visitor a licensee but is does not make him an invitee.[2]

An occupier of land is charged with constructive notice of defects when dealing with invitees.[3] The determinative question is whether the defective condition existed for such a length of time that the defendant, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have discovered it and remedied it. It is settled that circumstantial evidence can establish constructive notice.[4]

In Kurti v. Becker, 54 Conn. App. 335 (1999), the plaintiff, an 89-year-old man, slipped and fell on a accumulation of ice in the defendant's driveway after getting out of his car to join a group of persons who had gathered weekly, for five years, in the defendant's home to play their musical instruments. On one of his visits, he slipped on the ice on the defendant's driveway, and injured himself. The plaintiff sued, and the jury entered a verdict for the plaintiff, finding that he was 35 percent comparatively negligent. On appeal, the court held that the jury could reasonably find that the plaintiff was a social invitee, and that the defendants were charged with constructive notice of the ice. The defendants were required to notify the plaintiff of the ice or to remove it. Since the defendants failed in their duty, the jury could then find that the defendants were negligent.

[1] See Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557a, which provides: "The standard of care owed to a social invitee shall be the same as the standard of care owed to a business invitee."

[2] Corcoran v. Jacovino, 161 Conn. 462, 465-66 (1971).

[3] See Sokolowski v. Medi Mart, Inc., 24 Conn. App. 276, 286 (1991).

[4] Sokolowski v. Medi Mart, Inc., 24 Conn. App. 276, 286-87 (1991).