Koenig v. Koenig, 07-1586.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Citation766 N.W.2d 635
Docket NumberNo. 07-1586.,07-1586.
PartiesValerie KOENIG, Appellant, v. Marc KOENIG, Appellee.
Decision Date05 June 2009

Marc S. Harding, Des Moines, for appellant.

Jason T. Madden and Amy R. Teas of Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave, P.C., Des Moines, for appellee.

APPEL, Justice.

The question of whether Iowa should retain the traditional common-law distinction between an invitee and a licensee in premises liability cases has sharply divided this court in recent years. In this case, we hold that the common-law distinction between an invitee and a licensee no longer makes sound policy, unnecessarily complicates our law, and should be abandoned.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Valerie Koenig visited the home of her son, Marc Koenig, when he was ill in order to care for him and help with household chores. After doing laundry, she fell on a carpet cleaner hose while carrying clothes to a bedroom. As a result of the fall, Valerie was injured and required medical care, including the placement of a plate in her leg.

Valerie filed a petition alleging that Marc's negligent conduct caused her permanent injuries, pain and suffering, loss of function, and substantial medical costs. Marc generally denied her claim and further asserted that Valerie was negligent in connection with the occurrence and that she failed to mitigate her damages.

At trial, Valerie offered evidence that Marc was aware that the carpet cleaner hose was broken but did not warn her of the defect. Valerie further offered evidence that the color of the hose blended in with the color of the carpet, thereby making it difficult to see, and that one of two lights in the hallway near where she fell was not working, which lessened the light available to detect the hazard. Marc offered evidence that the broken hose was an open and obvious hazard and that Valerie did not turn on the light which was functioning in the hallway area.

At the close of trial, Valerie sought a general negligence instruction rather than the uniform jury instruction on the duty of care owed to a licensee. The district court found that the law in Iowa on the proper instruction in a premises liability case was unsettled, declined to give the general negligence instruction sought by Valerie, and instead used the uniform jury instruction for licensees.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Marc. After the district court entered judgment, Valerie filed a motion for a new trial based on the district court's failure to use her proposed general negligence instruction. Although the district court stated that it did not necessarily disagree with Valerie's position, it denied the motion. The district court noted that "Iowa appellate courts have not yet ruled that continued use of the stock instructions for premises liability cases constitutes error." Further, the district court questioned whether Valerie could demonstrate that prejudice occurred as a result of the use of the uniform instructions. Valerie filed a timely notice of appeal.

II. Standard of Review.

We review challenges to jury instructions for correction of errors at law. Boyle v. Alum-Line, Inc., 710 N.W.2d 741, 748 (Iowa 2006). We must determine whether the jury instructions presented "are a correct statement of the applicable law based on the evidence presented." Le v. Vaknin, 722 N.W.2d 412, 414 (Iowa 2006).

"Error in giving or refusing to give" a jury instruction does not warrant reversal unless it results in prejudice to the complaining party. Wells v. Enter. Rent-A-Car Midwest, 690 N.W.2d 33, 36 (Iowa 2004). Prejudice, however, is presumed and reversal required "when instructions are conflicting and confusing." Waits v. United Fire & Cas. Co., 572 N.W.2d 565, 575 (Iowa 1997); Moser v. Stallings, 387 N.W.2d 599, 605 (Iowa 1986). Similarly, "[w]hen jury instructions contain a material misstatement of the law, the trial court has no discretion to deny a motion for a new trial." Benn v. Thomas, 512 N.W.2d 537, 539 (Iowa 1994); Brown v. Lyon, 258 Iowa 1216, 1222, 142 N.W.2d 536, 539 (1966). An instruction which allocates the burden of proof is a material instruction. Kaspar v. Schack, 195 Neb. 215, 237 N.W.2d 414, 417 (1976).

III. Discussion.

A. Origin and Rationale of Common-Law Distinctions. The premises liability trichotomy, which distinguishes between invitees, licensees, and trespassers, finds its roots in the English common law. John Ketchum, Note, Missouri Declines an Invitation to Join the Twentieth Century: Preservation of the Licensee-Invitee Distinction in Carter v. Kinney, 64 UMKC L.Rev. 393, 395 (1995). "The distinctions which the common law draws between licensee and invitee were inherited from a culture deeply rooted to the land, a culture which traced many of its standards to a heritage of feudalism." Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 630, 79 S.Ct. 406, 410, 3 L.Ed.2d 550, 554 (1959). The trichotomy emerged in an era where land ownership was paramount and the primary source of power, wealth, and dominance. Nelson v. Freeland, 349 N.C. 615, 507 S.E.2d 882, 887 (1998). At the core of the trichotomy was the presumption that landowners generally were free to act as they pleased within the confines of their own property. Robert S. Driscoll, Note, The Law of Premises Liability in America: Its Past, Present, and Some Considerations for Its Future, 82 Notre Dame L.Rev. 881, 893 (2006).

These common-law classifications arose from reluctance "to leave the determination of liability to a jury `composed mainly of potential land entrants.'" Michael Sears, Comment, Abrogation of the Traditional Common Law of Premises Liability, 44 U. Kan. L.Rev. 175, 176 (1995) (quoting Norman S. Marsh, The History and Comparative Law of Invitees, Licensees and Trespassers, 69 L.Q. Rev. 182, 184 (1953)). The distinctions, therefore, were

created to disgorge the jury of some of its power by either allowing the judge to take the case from the jury based on legal rulings or by forcing the jury to apply the mechanical rules of the trichotomy instead of considering the pertinent issue of whether the landowner acted reasonably in maintaining his land.

Nelson, 507 S.E.2d at 887.

The trichotomy emerged in a time of tort law far different from our own. When the trichotomy was developing, "the principle that a man should be held responsible for foreseeable damages" was only reluctantly recognized in a limited number of cases. Id. Today, the situation has changed dramatically as the concept of negligence is a predominant concept in our tort law.

The emergence of negligence law almost immediately conflicted with the common-law system. Kathryn E. Eriksen, Comment, Premises Liability in Texas — Time for a "Reasonable" Change, 17 St. Mary's L.J. 417, 422 (1986). "Common-law courts, however, decided not to replace the trichotomy with modern principles of negligence law, as they did in almost all other tort areas, but rather `superimposed the new [negligence] principles upon the existing framework of entrant categories.'" Nelson, 507 S.E.2d at 887-88 (quoting Sears, 44 U. Kan. L.Rev. at 176).

Modern courts that have retained the trichotomy have largely set forth the traditional justifications: (1) the continued fear of jury abuse; (2) the fear that by "substituting the negligence standard of care for the common-law categories, landowners will be forced to bear" the financial burden of taking precautions such as maintaining adequate insurance policies; and (3) the need to promote stability and predictability in the law. Id. at 888.

B. Trend in Other Jurisdictions.

The first American blow to the trichotomy was hurled by the United States Supreme Court.1 In Kermarec, the Court refused to extend the common-law distinctions to admiralty law. The Court heavily criticized the doctrine, noting:

In an effort to do justice in an industrialized urban society, with its complex economic and individual relationships, modern common-law courts have found it necessary to formulate increasingly subtle verbal refinements, to create subclassifications among traditional common-law categories, and to delineate fine gradations in the standards of care which the landowner owes to each. Yet even within a single jurisdiction, the classifications and subclassifications bred by the common law have produced confusion and conflict. As new distinctions have been spawned, older ones have become obscured. Through this semantic morass the common law has moved, unevenly and with hesitation, towards "imposing on owners and occupiers a single duty of reasonable care in all the circumstances."

Kermarec, 358 U.S. at 630-31, 79 S.Ct. at 410, 3 L.Ed.2d at 554-55 (quoting Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 245 F.2d 175, 180 (2d Cir.1957) (Clark, C.J., dissenting)).

After Kermarec, the movement away from the common-law distinctions received a major boost in 1968 with the California Supreme Court's decision in 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). In rejecting application of the common-law formulation, the Rowland court noted,

[W]e are satisfied that continued adherence to the common law distinctions can only lead to injustice or, if we are to avoid injustice, further fictions with the resulting complexity and confusion. We decline to follow and perpetuate such rigid classifications ... although the plaintiff's status as a trespasser, licensee, or invitee may in the light of the facts giving rise to such status have some bearing on the question of liability, the status is not determinative.

70 Cal.Rptr. 97, 443 P.2d at 568. Following Rowland, numerous courts abandoned the common-law system. See Smith v. Arbaugh's Rest., Inc., 469 F.2d 97, 107 (D.C.Cir.1972); Webb v. City & Borough of Sitka, 561 P.2d 731, 734 (Alaska 1977), abrogated in part by statute as...

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