Alexander v. Medical Associates Clinic, 00-1764.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Citation646 N.W.2d 74
Docket NumberNo. 00-1764.,00-1764.
PartiesMonty ALEXANDER, Appellant, v. The MEDICAL ASSOCIATES CLINIC, Professional Corporation, Appellee.
Decision Date12 June 2002

646 N.W.2d 74

Monty ALEXANDER, Appellant,
The MEDICAL ASSOCIATES CLINIC, Professional Corporation, Appellee

No. 00-1764.

Supreme Court of Iowa.

June 12, 2002.

646 N.W.2d 75
Matthew D. Dake and Melissa M. Harbaugh-Adams of Wertz & Leehy, P.C., Cedar Rapids, for appellant

Gregory C. Guiney of Lane & Waterman, Davenport, for appellee.

TERNUS, Justice.

The plaintiff in this case, a trespasser on the defendant's land, asks us to abolish the common law rule limiting the liability of a landowner for injuries to trespassers and replace it with a negligence standard. We decline to do so and therefore affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment to the defendant landowner.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

The defendant/appellee, Medical Associates Clinic, P.C., owns land upon which its office building is located. The defendant's property includes an undeveloped, open field that abuts a residential area. Unknown to the defendant, the plaintiff/appellant, Monty Alexander, entered the field late one evening to retrieve his sister's dog. Walking in darkness, he fell in a ditch and injured his knee.

The plaintiff filed this suit to recover damages for his injury, asserting the defendant was negligent in its maintenance of the property. After discovery, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment alleging the undisputed facts established that the plaintiff was a trespasser and there were no facts to support a finding that the defendant breached its limited duty of care to a trespasser. The plaintiff resisted. The district court granted summary judgment, ruling (1) as a matter of law, the plaintiff was a trespasser, (2) the applicable standard of care was the avoidance of willful and wanton injury, not negligence, and (3) there were no facts showing the defendant breached this duty of care. This appeal followed.

II. Scope of Review.

The scope of review for summary judgment rulings is familiar:

Our review of a summary judgment ruling is for the correction of errors of law. Summary judgment is appropriate where the moving party shows there are no genuine issues of material fact and it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In determining whether the moving party has met this burden, we view the record in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion for summary judgment. This court's role on appeal is "to determine whether a genuine issue of material fact exists and whether the law was correctly applied."

Kelly v. Iowa Mut. Ins. Co., 620 N.W.2d 637, 641 (Iowa 2000) (citations omitted) (quoting Red Giant Oil Co. v. Lawlor, 528 N.W.2d 524, 528 (Iowa 1995)).

III. Issues on Appeal.

The issues raised on appeal are rather narrow. The plaintiff challenges only the second part of the district court's decision, namely, that the defendant must be judged by the common law duty to avoid willful and wanton injury to a trespasser. The plaintiff argues on appeal that the defendant should be held to a duty of reasonable care and that there is a factual issue as to whether that duty of care was breached. The plaintiff does not contest the district court's ruling that, as a matter of law, he was a trespasser and that the defendant did not breach its common law duty of care to the plaintiff. Thus, the determinative issue on appeal is whether Iowa should abandon its common law rule of trespasser liability and replace it with a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances.

IV. Discussion.

Iowa has long adhered to the common law rule that "a possessor of land

646 N.W.2d 76
owes no duty to a trespasser other than not to injure him willfully or wantonly, and to use reasonable care after his presence becomes known to avoid injuring him." Champlin v. Walker, 249 N.W.2d 839, 842 (Iowa 1977); accord Mann v. Des Moines Ry., 232 Iowa 1049, 1057, 7 N.W.2d 45, 51 (1942); Gwynn v. Duffield, 66 Iowa 708, 713, 24 N.W. 523, 525 (1885). Thus, a landowner's duty with respect to a trespasser is twofold: (1) the landowner may not use his land in such a way that he deliberately or maliciously causes injury to a trespasser, and (2) once the landowner is aware of the presence of a trespasser, the landowner must use reasonable care to avoid injuring the trespasser. See generally Webster's Third New International Dictionary 2575 (defining "wanton"), 2617 (defining "willful"). A "trespasser" is one who has no legal right to be upon another's land and enters the land without the express or implied consent of the owner. Reasoner v. Chicago, Rock Island & Pac. R.R., 251 Iowa 506, 510, 101 N.W.2d 739, 741 (1960); Mann, 232 Iowa at 1056, 7 N.W.2d at 50

The trespasser rule arose "out of the special privileges accorded the occupation of land" in feudal England. Rosenau v. City of Estherville, 199 N.W.2d 125, 135 (Iowa 1972); accord Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 630, 79 S.Ct. 406, 410, 3 L.Ed.2d 550, 554 (1959); 62 Am.Jur.2d Premises Liability § 79, at 431-32 (1990). The rule has continued to exist based on a belief that a property owner should not be obligated to make his or her property safe "or to keep it in any particular condition" for the benefit of intruders. Mann, 232 Iowa at 1062, 7 N.W.2d at 53. A well-known treatise on torts perhaps best articulates the rationale behind our trespasser rules:

The possessor of land has a legally protected interest in the exclusiveness of his possession. In general, no one has any right to enter without his consent, and he is free to fix the terms on which that consent will be given. Intruders who come without his permission have no right to demand that he provide them with a safe place to trespass, or that he protect them in their wrongful use of his property.

W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 58, at 393 (5th ed.1984) [hereinafter Prosser on Torts].

The plaintiff points out that several jurisdictions have abolished the traditional analysis that determines the duty owed by a landowner based on the status of the injured party—invitee, licensee or trespasser. See Sheets v. Ritt, Ritt & Ritt, Inc., 581 N.W.2d 602, 604-05 (Iowa 1998) (citing cases that have rejected common law distinctions). In fact, in Sheets, four members of this court favored taking a first step down that path by abolishing the distinction between invitee and licensee. Id. at 606. That position, however, did not gain the support of a majority of the court, and premises liability in Iowa remains dependent on the status of the plaintiff. Richardson v. Commodore, Inc., 599 N.W.2d 693, 698 n. 3 (Iowa 1999).

The present case presents a different question than that presented in Sheets. In this case, we are asked to impose upon landowners a duty of reasonable care with respect to trespassers—persons who enter the landowner's property without the express or implied consent of the landowner. Although, as already noted, a few courts have abandoned all classifications with respect to landowner liability, the majority of courts have retained the special duties of a property owner to a trespasser. We will briefly review the position of other courts on this issue, not because the law is a popularity contest where the side with the most votes wins, but because the judgment

646 N.W.2d 77
of other jurisdictions reflects, we think, a prevailing belief that the interests of trespassers do not warrant a further reduction in the right of property owners to use their land as they see fit

The landmark case in which a court first abandoned the common law classifications historically used in premises liability law was Rowland v. Christian, 69 Cal.2d 108, 70 Cal.Rptr. 97, 443 P.2d 561 (1968), abrogated in part by statute as stated in Calvillo-Silva v. Home Grocery, 19 Cal.4th 714, 80 Cal.Rptr.2d 506, 968 P.2d 65, 72 (1998). By the end of the 1970s, seven states had followed California's lead and five states had not, the latter group choosing instead to retain the traditional rules based on the entrant's status.1 During that same period six states chose to abolish or modify the distinction made between invitees and licensees, but did not take the same step with respect to trespassers.2 Thus, in the twelve years after Rowland, a total of eleven states rejected California's rule that the liability of property owners to trespassers should be judged by the same standard as their liability to persons legally on their land.

Since 1980, the rejection of California's one-rule-fits-all approach has been even more overwhelming. In Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Supreme Court partially overruled its earlier decision that had followed Rowland and held that the traditional rules governing liability to trespassers should be retained. Tantimonico v. Allendale Mut. Ins. Co., 637 A.2d 1056, 1057 (R.I.1994), overruling in part Mariorenzi v. DiPonte, Inc., 114 R.I. 294, 333 A.2d 127, 131-32 (1975). In addition, the state legislatures in California and Colorado abrogated or partially abrogated court decisions adopting a negligence standard for all premises liability actions. In Colorado, the legislature passed a statute that reinstated a classification-based system of liability for landowners. See Colo.Rev.Stat. § 13-21-115 (1997). In California, in response to cases in which trespassing criminals had recovered for injuries incurred during their unlawful intrusions, the state legislature enacted a law that limited landowners' liability to trespassers who were on the property to commit a crime, essentially reinstating the common law duty in such cases. See 1985 Cal. Stat. ch. 1541, § 1 (codified at Cal. Civil Code § 847 (West 2002)).

646 N.W.2d 78
In addition to those jurisdictions retreating from a prior, wholesale adoption of negligence principles, eight states refused to change their conventional principles of trespasser liability, even though they judicially abolished or modified the distinction between an invitee and a licensee.3 Additionally, two states, Maryland and...

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