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Judge Charged Wrong Jury Charge for Social Guest Premises Liability Case

By on October 26, 2018 in Liability with 1 Comment

Plaintiff Staci Piech was attending a 40th birthday party hosted by the defendant John Layendecker for his son Glenn Layendecker when she suffered an injury. Glenn was using a hollow metal pipe to strike a piñata, which broke off and struck her arm. She sued both John and Glenn Layendecker for her injuries. As to her claim against the property owner, John, the issue in the published Appellate Division decision of Piech v. Layendecker, 2018 N.J. Super. LEXIS 144 (App. Div. Oct. 19, 2018), was whether the jury should have been given a general duty to warn against dangerous conditions to the property charge or whether it should have been solely charged on the failure to use reasonable care for her protection charge.

The jury found no cause of action in favor of the defendant John Layendecker. The plaintiff appealed that judgment, as well as the court’s order denying her motion for a new trial. She argued that the trial court judge instructed the jury on the incorrect standard of care owed to her by the defendant (the jury charge) and, thus, she should be entitled to a new trial as a result of this mistake.

Initially, Glenn used a wiffle-ball bat on the piñata. He then began to use an 18 to 20 inch thin hollow metal pole to break the piñata. As he swung at the piñata multiple times, the pole began failing by bending more and more. Eventually, the pole snapped, causing it to helicopter towards the plaintiff, injuring her arm.

Plaintiff argued that John failed to use reasonable care by protecting her from the activity, such as by stopping Glenn from using the pole to swing at the piñata. Allegedly, the pole was handed to Glenn by John. Thus, she contended that she suffered an injury solely because of the activity of striking the pole against the piñata and not because of a dangerous condition of the property itself.

At trial, the judge instructed the jury on the applicable New Jersey law so that the jurors could make a determination whether the defendant was liable for the plaintiff’s injury. The trial court used the “standard” social host jury charge which would impose liability on the owner of a property if “the host knows or has reason to know of some artificial condition on the premises which could pose an unreasonable risk of harm to his … guest and that his … guest could not be reasonably expected to discovery it….”

The plaintiff contended that this charge should not have been given. Rather, because the injury arose from an activity on the property, rather than a dangerous condition of the property itself, she argued that the applicable charge was found in the exception to this rule, in which a jury could find the property owner liable simply upon his failure to use reasonable care under the circumstances. The exception stated that “[i]n cases where the host is conducting some ‘activity’ on the premises at the time of [the] guest’s presence, [the host] is under an obligation to exercise reasonable care for the protection of [the] guest.”

The defendant asserted that the piñata set up constituted an artificial dangerous condition, warranting the standard social guest jury charge.

However, the Appellate Division found that the setup of the piñata was not the type of artificial dangerous condition generally contemplated by New Jersey case law as a “dangerous condition.” There was nothing about the setup of the piñata itself which caused the injury to the plaintiff. She stood on a deck in the backyard several feet away from the piñata and it did not fall on her.

Rather, her injury was caused by Glenn swinging the pole. Thus, her injury was caused by an activity that the host conducted or sponsored on his land, as opposed to a dangerous condition of the land.

However, at trial, over the objection by plaintiff’s counsel, the trial judge instructed the jury on the general social guest standard of care, as if plaintiff did suffer an injury due to a dangerous condition of the property. The judge then proceeded to instruct the jury on the standard of care as if the activity caused the injury.

The Appellate Division held that these two charges should not have been given simultaneously because plaintiff never alleged, nor was there any evidence, that there was any kind of dangerous condition that existed on the property. The plaintiff did not need to prove that there was a dangerous condition of the property and that a dangerous activity of the property caused her injury. Had the jury received the correct charge, the Appellate Division held that they could have focused solely on whether John failed to use reasonable care under the circumstances.

Because both charges were given together, the jury also had to evaluate a nonexistent alleged dangerous physical condition. The Appellate Division found that it was probable that giving both of these charges confused the jury, requiring them to apply two different standards of care, and producing an unfair outcome. Hence, the Appellate Division agreed that the judge provided flawed jury instructions on the issue of John’s standard of care, meriting a new trial.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

For the years 2020 and 2021, Ms. Ramos was selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America© in the practice area of Litigation - Insurance. The attorneys on this list are selected based upon the consensus opinion of leading lawyers about the professional abilities of their colleagues within the same geographical area and legal practice area. A complete description of The Best Lawyers in America© methodology can be viewed via their website at: https://www.bestlawyers.com/methodology.

In 2021, Capehart Scatchard and Ms. Ramos received the “Best Law Firm” ranking in the area of Litigation – Insurance (Metro, Tier 3) published by U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers®. Law firms included on the list are recognized for professional excellence with consistently impressive ratings from clients and peers. To be eligible for a ranking, a firm must have at least one attorney who has been included in the current edition of Best Lawyers in America, which recognizes the top five percent of practicing lawyers in the United States. Betsy Ramos (Litigation – Insurance) was recognized for this prestigious award in the 2021 edition. For a description of the “Best Law Firm” selection methodology please visit: https://bestlawfirms.usnews.com/methodology.aspx.

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There is 1 Brilliant Comment

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  1. Ron says:

    Judge paley was the trial judge

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