Legalese — Are You Liable if Aunt Sue Chokes on a Chicken Bone?

slippery-when-wetWe’ve all heard horror stories, usually told in click-bait style articles on social media, about someone who invites their Aunt Sue over for lunch.  Aunt Sue chokes on a grape in the chicken salad, or maybe breaks a hip when she trips over an area rug, and ends up suing the poor home owner for millions of dollars.

How realistic is that?

O.C.G.A. 51-3-1 says, “[w]here an owner or occupier of land, by express or implied invitation, induces or leads others to come upon his premises for any lawful purpose, he is liable in damages to such persons for injuries caused by his failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises and approaches safe.”

What does that mean in plain English?

It means that if you either own or live on a piece of property, you have a duty to keep your place safe for invitees.  And what, legally speaking, is an invitee?  It isn’t only someone you have sent a formal invitation to.  It is also the UPS guy delivering your packages, trick-or-treaters, the water meter reader, and neighbors come for a friendly visit.  It is anyone you have said, “hey, come on over!” to, in either an express or implied way.

When an invitee is on your front sidewalk or inside your home, you have to exercise ‘ordinary care’ to keep it safe.  ‘Ordinary care’ is one of those terms that means different things in different contexts, and is something often argued about in a court or law.  Basically, it means that you must do the things you’d normally expect a person to do.  So, the handrail on your front steps should not be so insecure as to make Aunt Sue lose her balance and fall.  It does not mean that the handrail should be so finely sanded every morning so as to ensure that not a single splinter will pierce Aunt Sue’s delicate skin.

Accidents happen, and as a homeowner you are not the insurer of your invitees’ safety.  You just have to make sure that you take reasonable precautions.  If you know there’s a rug in the hallway that has a tendency to slip, you might want to take it out of the hallway.  But if no one ever has slipped on that rug in the 15 years it has been in that hallway, and Aunt Sue catches the toe of her extra-pointy boot on it and falls, you wouldn’t likely be responsible.

The standard is different if the person at your house is a trespasser.  For a trespasser, it is only required that your behavior not be ‘wanton and willful.’  So, for example, If you have a clear “no soliciting” sign on your front gate, or a “beware of dog – trespassers beware” sign and someone ignores that warning to try to sell you the very latest in cutlery technology, and in so doing they trip on the brick on your front stoop you’ve been meaning to fix, you’d probably be ok.  However, if you booby trapped your front walk so that they are shot with an arrow decorated with a flag that says, “I said no trespassing.  Next time you’ll listen.” you probably would be liable for damages.

The actual line is probably somewhere in the middle of those two examples.

This is one of those areas of the law where your efforts do matter.  So long as you are trying to keep your premises reasonably safe and keep up your homeowner’s insurance premiums, you don’t have much to worry about.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  No lawyer can advise you about your situation without hearing the particular details of your case.

About Lori Duff 352 Articles
Lori is the author of the bestselling collection of humor essays, "Mismatched Shoes and Upside Down Pizza" currently available exclusively on Amazon. In order to finance her writing habit, she is a practicing lawyer with Jones & Duff, LLC. She is married to Mike Duff, who is a retired DeKalb County Public Safety Officer, and has two amazing children who make cameo embarrassing appearances in her blog posts and who attend Walton County Public Schools. Her legal column, "Legalese", is meant to de-mystify and humanize the Court system. When asked about her writing, Lori says, "Life is too short not to laugh at every available opportunity. My goal is to make myself laugh -- and hopefully you will laugh along with me."

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