Peterson v. Balach

Decision Date14 July 1972
Docket NumberNo. 42630,42630
Citation199 N.W.2d 639,294 Minn. 161
PartiesWillard C. PETERSON, as trustee for the heirs of Cynthia S. Peterson, Decedent, Appellant, v. Milan S. BALACH, spec. admr. of the Estate of Harry G. Johnson, Decedent, Respondent.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. In causes of action arising after the date of this opinion, the status as licensee or invitee of a person entering upon the land of another is no longer to be considered the controlling factor in determining the landowner's liability but is one element, among others, to be considered in determining the landowner's liability under ordinary standards of negligence.

2. The duty of a landowner (or the person charged with the responsibility for the condition of the land) to licensees and invitees is no more and no less than that of any other alleged tortfeasor. The test to be applied in determining the extent of a landowner's duty is that of reasonable care under the circumstances then existing.

MacDonald & Munger and James J. Bang, Duluth, for appellant. Sullivan, Hanft, Hastings, Fride & O'Brien and Tyrone P. Bujold and William M. Burns, Duluth, for respondent.

Heard before KNUTSON, C.J., and MURPHY, KELLY, and HACHEY, JJ. Reconsidered en banc.

RONALD E. HACHEY, Justice. *

Appeal following a directed verdict in favor of defendant in an action for death by wrongful act.

On Saturday, June 8, 1968, 11-year-old Cynthia Peterson was invited to the lake cabin of Harry Johnson in rural St. Louis County to spend the night as a guest of Mr. Johnson's 13-year-old daughter. The cabin had been purchased by Mr. Johnson in May 1967. It was equipped with lights, refrigerator, and cooking stove, all of which operated on LP gas. The refrigerator was the only appliance operating that night. All of the windows and doors of the cabin were closed when the three occupants went to bed. The next morning a concerned neighbor entered the cabin and found the girls dead where they had been sleeping and Johnson dead near the cabin door. The neighbor noticed a strong 'rotten egg' or gas odor, which he had not noticed the night before. Examination of the bodies disclosed that the deaths were caused by inhalation of carbon monoxide. Plaintiff's expert witness testified that both the odor and the carbon monoxide came from the refrigerator. Prior to the accident, Mr. Johnson's wife had noticed a rotten-egg-type of odor in the cabin, but she had assumed it was caused by the fact the tanks which supplied gas to the cabin were getting low on gas. Two additional tanks of LP gas had been delivered on the Sunday prior to June 8, but were not hooked up. As far as could be determined, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Johnson had ever cleaned or checked the operating unit of the gas refrigerator. The refrigerator was not used after June 9.

The carbon monoxide was ultimately caused by rust flakes which blocked the air holes between the casing and the barrel of the burner in the bottom of the refrigerator. The blocking of the air holes caused an incomplete combustion which resulted in a large yellow flame and produced carbon monoxide. While the manufacturer made allowance for some accumulation of debris, the rust flakes exceeded this amount by 4 or 5 times. Plaintiff's expert also testified that the barrel had not been emptied for some time and that it could have taken a year or longer for the rust flakes to accumulate in the quantity found. Mr. Johnson had owned the cabin little more than a year, which would indicate that he was unaware of the necessity of cleaning the burner. Furthermore, the odor is not necessarily linked with the production of carbon monoxide. Mr. Johnson apparently thought the odor was caused by the tanks getting low on gas, since he had had two additional tanks delivered the previous Sunday.

On the foregoing facts, the trial court found no evidence of a breach of duty or negligence on the part of Mr. Johnson and directed a verdict in favor of defendant. A motion for a new trial was subsequently denied. Plaintiff appeals from the adverse order and judgment.

1. On the basis of existing law, the trial court was correct in directing a verdict for defendant. It clearly appears that Cynthia Peterson was a social guest and, therefore, a licensee. This court has held as recently as Holland v. Hedenstad, 287 Minn. 244, 246, 177 N.W.2d 784, 785 (1970), that 'a possessor of property owes a licensee no duty of inspection or of affirmative care to make the premises safe for a licensee's visit.' See, also, Thayer v. Silker, 267 Minn. 268, 126 N.W.2d 263 (1964). We have adopted the Restatement's rules concerning the duties of a possessor of real estate to a licensee. Restatement, Torts 2d, § 341, states:

'A possessor of land is subject to liability to his licensees for physical harm caused to them by his failure to carry on his activities with reasonable care for their safety if, but only if,

'(a) he should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, and

'(b) they do not know or have reason to know of the possessor's activities and of the risk involved.'

Section 342 states:

'A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to licensees by a condition on the land if, but only if,

'(a) the possessor knows or has reason to know of the condition and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such licensees, and should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, and

'(b) he fails to exercise reasonable care to make the condition safe, or to warn the licensees of the condition and risk involved, and

'(c) the licensees do not know or have reason to know of the condition and the risk involved.'

See, Holland v. Hedenstad, Supra; Carlson v. Rand, 275 Minn. 272, 146 N.W.2d 190 (1966); Sandstrom v. The AAD Temple Building Assn. Inc., 267 Minn. 407, 127 N.W.2d 173 (1964); and Thayer v. Silker, Supra.

We are urged by appellant to break with tradition and abolish the distinctions relating to the landowner's duty toward trespassers, licensees, and invitees, which we have adhered to in our previous decisions.

We herewith abolish the traditional distinctions governing licensees and invitees but decline to rule on the question of a landowner's duty toward trespassers. Judicial restraint suggests that this question be deferred to a later day and to another case. Out judgment dictates that rules which have evolved over decades of common-law experience in this state should not be summarily abrogated except in an adversary setting after a thorough and careful presentation by litigants who have a stake in the outcome.

Furthermore, the considerations governing a landowner's or occupant's liability to trespassers may be fundamentally different from his duty to those whom he has expressly or by implication invited onto his property. Burglars are trespassers; vandals are trespassers. We have criminal statutes governing trespassers. Minn.St. 609.605. Sweeping away all distinction between trespassers and social guests and business invitees is a drastic step to take because there may be, and often is, good reason to distinguish between a trespasser and a social guest. There is little or no reason to distinguish between a social guest and a business invitee.

Our course of action emulates the changes made in England by the Occupiers' Liability Act, 1957 (5 & 6 Eliz. II, c. 31). That act abolished the distinction between invitees, licensees and so-called contractual visitors but made no change in the law as to the liability of an occupant of land to trespassers. 1 Legal writers, scholars, and, more recently, judges have been highly critical of the common-law straitjacket of highly technical and arbitrary classifications which have often led to confusion in the law and inequity in the cases decided. In many instances, recovery by an entrant has become largely a matter of chance, dependent upon the pigeonhole in which the law has put him, e.g., 'trespasser,' 'licensee,' or 'invitee'--each of which has had radically different consequences in law. 2 While negligence has emerged as the main basis of liability for unintended torts, real property law and theory still dominate recoveries for injuries occurring on private property.

A strong argument can be advanced against making the status of a licensee or invitee determinative of a claimant's rights. This is not to say that the status of the entrant should not be considered at all; it would continue to have validity in determining such factors as foreseeability or expectations of the claimant. 3 The status of such claimants, however, would become only one element among many to be considered in determining the landowner's liability; the standard of care required of the landowner (or the person charged with the responsibility for the condition of the land) would be no more and no less than that of any other alleged tortfeasor. Comment, 44 N.Y.U.L.Rev. 426; Comment, 18 Kan.L.Rev. 161. The standard of care would be that of the reasonable man, just as it is with regard to conduct in any other place.

We have reached the point where we should squarely face the issue of why the law relating to the duties of owners and occupiers of land to invitees and licensees should not be merged with general negligence law. Over the years, in the attempt to resolve the problems which arose under varying fact situations, glaring inequities have developed. In the relationship between guest and host, we have provided for two standards of care: While the guest is on the host's property, one standard applies, but if the host should invite his guest to accompany him in his automobile, a different standard of care comes into use upon entry into the vehicle. 4 We think the time has come when uniformity should be attempted by replacing the classification system with one uniform standard--that of the reasonable man.

Another approach to the problem, over the years, has been to create...

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