Nelson v. Freeland, 216A98.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
Citation507 S.E.2d 882
Docket NumberNo. 216A98.,216A98.
PartiesJohn Harvey NELSON v. Daryl Dean C. FREELAND and Belinda Brittain Freeland.
Decision Date31 December 1998

Maddox & Gorham, P.A. by E. Thomas Maddox, Jr.; and Harrison, North, Cooke & Landreth by A. Wayland Cooke, Greensboro, for plaintiff-appellant.

Burton & Sue, L.L.P. by Walter K. Burton, David K. Williams, Jr., and James D. Secor, III, Greensboro, for defendant-appellees.

WYNN, Justice.

The sole issue arising out of the case sub judice is whether defendant Dean Freeland's ("Freeland") act of leaving a stick on his porch constituted negligence. Indeed, this case presents us with the simplest of factual scenarios—Freeland requested that plaintiff John Harvey Nelson ("Nelson") pick him up at his house for a business meeting the two were attending, and Nelson, while doing so, tripped over a stick that Freeland had inadvertently left lying on his porch. Nelson brought this action against Freeland and his wife seeking damages for the injuries he sustained in the fall. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. See Nelson v. Freeland, 129 N.C.App. 427, 500 S.E.2d 778 (1998).

Although the most basic principles of tort law should provide an easy answer to this case, our current premises-liability trichotomy—that is, the invitee, licensee, and trespasser classifications—provides no clear solution and has created dissension and confusion amongst the attorneys and judges involved. Thus, once again, this Court confronts the problem of clarifying our enigmatic premises-liability scheme—a problem that we have addressed over fourteen times. See, e.g., Cassell v. Collins, 344 N.C. 160, 472 S.E.2d 770 (1996)

; Newton v. New Hanover County Bd. of Educ., 342 N.C. 554, 467 S.E.2d 58 (1996); Roumillat v. Simplistic Enters., 331 N.C. 57, 414 S.E.2d 339 (1992); Pulley v. Rex Hosp., 326 N.C. 701, 392 S.E.2d 380 (1990); Branks v. Kern, 320 N.C. 621, 359 S.E.2d 780 (1987); Mazzacco v. Purcell, 303 N.C. 493, 279 S.E.2d 583 (1981); Norwood v. Sherwin-Williams Co., 303 N.C. 462, 279 S.E.2d 559 (1981); Rappaport v. Days Inn of Am., Inc., 296 N.C. 382, 250 S.E.2d 245 (1979); Husketh v. Convenient Sys., Inc., 295 N.C. 459, 245 S.E.2d 507 (1978); Anderson v. Butler, 284 N.C. 723, 202 S.E.2d 585 (1974); Freeze v. Congleton, 276 N.C. 178, 171 S.E.2d 424 (1970); Game v. Charles Stores Co., 268 N.C. 676, 151 S.E.2d 560 (1966); Thames v. Nello L. Teer Co., 267 N.C. 565, 148 S.E.2d 527 (1966); Jones v. Kinston Hous. Auth., 262 N.C. 604, 138 S.E.2d 235 (1964).

As the aforementioned cases demonstrate, we have repeatedly waded through the mire of North Carolina premises-liability law. Nonetheless, despite our numerous attempts to clarify this liability scheme and transform it into a system capable of guiding North Carolina landowners toward appropriate conduct, this case and its similarly situated predecessors convincingly demonstrate that our current premises-liability scheme has failed to establish a stable and predictable system of laws. Significantly, despite over one hundred years of utilizing the common-law trichotomy, we still are unable to determine unquestionably whether a man who trips over a stick at a friend/business partner's house is entitled to a jury trial—a question ostensibly answerable by the most basic tenet and duty under tort law: the reasonable-person standard of care.

Given that our current premises-liability scheme has confounded our judiciary, we can only assume that it has inadequately apprised landowners of their respective duties of care. Thus, it befalls us to examine the continuing utility of the common-law trichotomy as a means of determining landowner liability in North Carolina. In analyzing this question, we will consider the effectiveness of our current scheme of premises-liability law, the nationwide trend of abandoning the common-law trichotomy in favor of a reasonable-care standard, and the policy reasons for and against abandoning the trichotomy in this state.


Under current North Carolina law, the standard of care a landowner1 owes to persons entering upon his land depends upon the entrant's status, that is, whether the entrant is a licensee, invitee, or trespasser. See Newton, 342 N.C. at 560,

467 S.E.2d at 63. An invitee is one who goes onto another's premises in response to an express or implied invitation and does so for the mutual benefit of both the owner and himself. Id. The classic example of an invitee is a store customer. See, e.g., Rives v. Great Atl. & Pac. Tea Co., 68 N.C.App. 594, 315 S.E.2d 724 (1984). A licensee, on the other hand, "is one who enters onto another's premises with the possessor's permission, express or implied, solely for his own purposes rather than the possessor's benefit." Mazzacco, 303 N.C. at 497, 279 S.E.2d at 586-87. The classic example of a licensee is a social guest. See, e.g., Crane v. Caldwell, 113 N.C.App. 362, 366, 438 S.E.2d 449, 452 (1994). Lastly, a trespasser is one who enters another's premises without permission or other right. See Newton, 342 N.C. at 559,

467 S.E.2d at 63.

In a traditional common-law premises-liability action, the threshold issue of determining the plaintiff's status at the time of the injury is of substantial import. The gravity of this determination stems from the fact that there is a descending degree of duty owed by a landowner based upon the plaintiff's status. Id. at 561, 467 S.E.2d at 63.

The highest degree of care a landowner owes is the duty of reasonable care toward those entrants classified as invitees. See Roumillat, 331 N.C. at 64,

414 S.E.2d at 342. Specifically, a landowner owes an invitee a duty to use ordinary care to keep his property reasonably safe and to warn of hidden perils or unsafe conditions that could be discovered by reasonable inspection and supervision. See Pulley, 326 N.C. at 705,

392 S.E.2d at 383.

A landowner's duty toward a licensee, on the other hand, is significantly less stringent. The duty of care owed to a licensee by an owner or possessor of land ordinarily is to refrain from doing the licensee willful injury and from wantonly and recklessly exposing him to danger. McCurry, 90 N.C.App. at 645, 369 S.E.2d at 392. Thus, a licensee enters another's premises at his own risk and enjoys the license subject to its concomitant perils. See Turpin v. Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, 20 N.C.App. 580, 583, 202 S.E.2d 351, 353 (1974)


Finally, with respect to trespassers, a landowner need only refrain from the willful or wanton infliction of injury. See Bell v. Page, 271 N.C. 396, 156 S.E.2d 711 (1967)

. Willful injury constitutes actual knowledge of the danger combined with a design, purpose, or intent to do wrong and inflict injury. See Howard v. Jackson, 120 N.C.App. 243, 246, 461 S.E.2d 793, 797 (1995). Similarly, a wanton act is performed intentionally with a reckless indifference to the injuries likely to result. Id.


Although the common-law trichotomy has been entrenched in this country's tort-liability jurisprudence since our nation's inception, over the past fifty years, many states have questioned, modified, and even abolished it after analyzing its utility in modern times. At first, states believed that although the policies underlying the trichotomy—specifically those involving the supremacy of land ownership rights—were no longer viable, they nonetheless could find means to salvage it. See Jones v. Hansen, 254 Kan. 499, 505-06, 867 P.2d 303, 307-08 (1994)

; Heins v. Webster County, 250 Neb. 750, 757-58, 552 N.W.2d 51, 55-56 (1996). In particular, states attempted to salvage the trichotomy by engrafting into it certain exceptions and subclassifications which would allow it to better congeal with our present-day policy of balancing land-ownership rights with the right of entrants to receive adequate protection from harm. See Kermarec v. Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, 358 U.S. 625, 630-31, 79 S.Ct. 406, 409-10, 3 L.Ed.2d 550, 554-55 (1959); Heins, 250 Neb. at 757-58,

552 N.W.2d at 55-56. Accordingly, North Carolina, along with the rest of the country, witnessed the burgeoning of novel jurisprudence involving entrant-protection theories such as the active-negligence and attractive-nuisance doctrines. See Michael Sears, Abrogation of the Traditional Common Law of Premises Liability, 44 U. Kan. L.Rev. 175, 179 (1995); see also Fitch v. Selwyn Village, 234 N.C. 632, 634, 68 S.E.2d 255, 257 (1951) (discussing attractive-nuisance doctrine); De-Haven v. Hoskins, 95 N.C.App. 397, 400, 382 S.E.2d 856, 858 (discussing active-negligence doctrine), disc. rev. denied, 325 N.C. 705, 388 S.E.2d 452 (1989). Unfortunately, these exceptions and subclassifications ultimately forced courts to maneuver their way through a dizzying array of factual nuances and delineations. See Kermarec, 358 U.S. at 631,

79 S.Ct. at 410,

3 L.Ed.2d at 555 (stating "the classification and subclassification bred by the common law have produced confusion and conflict"); Smith v. Arbaugh's Restaurant, Inc., 469 F.2d 97, 103 (D.C.Cir.1972) (stating that the exceptions and subclassifications have "produced even further confusion and conflict"), cert. denied, 412 U.S. 939, 93 S.Ct. 2774, 37 L.Ed.2d 399 (1973); O'Leary v. Coenen, 251 N.W.2d 746, 749 (N.D.1977) (holding that "the many exceptions and distinctions make the use of the common law categories complex, confusing, inequitable, and paradoxically, nonuniform"); Hudson v. Gaitan, 675 S.W.2d 699, 702 (Tenn.1984) (holding that the numerous exceptions and subclassifications engrafted into the trichotomy have created a "complex patchwork of legal classifications which are by no means uniformly interpreted in the various jurisdictions").

Additionally, courts were often confronted with...

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