Menard v. Lavoie
Menard v. Lavoie (2001-355); 174 Vt. 479; 806 A.2d 1004
SUPREME COURT DOCKET NO. 2001-355
MAY TERM, 2002
Sandra Menard } APPEALED FROM:
v. } Addison Superior Court
Mark and Nancy Lavoie }
} DOCKET NO. 183-8-00 Ancv
Trial Judge: Mary Miles Teachout
In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:
Plaintiff Sandra Menard appeals from a superior court decision
granting summary judgment to defendants Mark and Nancy Lavoie. Plaintiff
claims issues of fact remain regarding the trial court's determination that
a "social guest" relationship existed between the parties. Alternatively,
plaintiff argues that this Court should abandon the current status-based
standards of landowner liability in favor of a general standard of
"reasonable care." Because we find that defendants were not negligent
under any standard of care, we affirm.
Defendants own their home, sharing it with Mary Lavoie, the mother of
defendant Mark Lavoie. Mary Lavoie originally owned the home with her
husband, but sold it to defendants in 1978. Upon purchasing the property,
defendants built a garage-apartment where Mary lived until 2001. As part
of these renovations, defendants installed a spiral staircase connecting
Mary's apartment to the rest of the house. Mary used this staircase while
she lived in the garage-apartment. The staircase had guardrails at its
top, but did not have railings along its sides.
Sandra Menard is Mary Lavoie's daughter and the sister of Mark Lavoie.
Throughout the 20 years that Mary lived in the garage apartment, plaintiff
made annual visits to defendants' home. Plaintiff had used the staircase
only once because, as she testified in her deposition, it made her nervous.
Instead, she chose to use an alternate staircase in a different part of the
house. On September 14, 1999, while visiting her mother, plaintiff chose
to descend the spiral staircase. Not watching the stairs, she missed the
first step. Plaintiff was not holding on to the railing and fell
completely off the stairs. She dropped nine feet to the floor below,
breaking her leg. She brought suit in superior court against defendants,
seeking damages for her injury. The trial court found that a "social
guest" standard of care applied to the situation, which requires a
plaintiff to prove affirmative negligence. Finding insufficient evidence
to support this claim, the court granted summary judgment to defendants.
Plaintiff contends that the trial court erred in granting summary
judgment because issues of fact remain regarding the relationship between
defendants and herself. She argues that the determination of a "social
guest" relationship was in error, as Mary Lavoie engaged in a
landlord-tenant relationship with defendants. As such, plaintiff argues
that she was entitled to be treated as a "business invitee," which imposes
a higher standard of "reasonable care" on defendants. See Ball v. Melsur
Corp., 161 Vt. 35, 43, 633 A.2d 705, 711 (1993). Alternatively, plaintiff
argues that this Court ought to abandon the status-based approach to
landowner liability, instead applying the "reasonable care" standard
regardless of the parties' relationship. See, e.g., Mounsey v. Ellard, 297
N.E.2d 43, 51 (Mass. 1973); see also Ouellette v. Blanchard, 364 A.2d 631,
633 (N.H. 1976).
Plaintiff's requested standard would impose a higher duty of care on
defendants than the "affirmative negligence" standard used by the trial
court. Currently in Vermont, a landowner is liable to a social guest when
the guest suffers injury as a result of active or affirmative negligence by
the landlord. Lomberg v. Renner, 121 Vt. 311, 315, 157 A.2d 222, ___
(1960). A "social guest" is one who enters or remains on land with the
consent of the landowner. Id. at 314. A business invitee, by contrast,
enters the land for the purpose of business dealings with the landowner.
Id. Plaintiff's contends that a landlord-tenant relationship existed
between Mary and Mark Lavoie would create a "business invitee"
relationship, triggering the "reasonable care" standard. Under this
standard, defendants have the added duty of keeping the premises free from
unreasonable risks. See Ball, 161 Vt. at 43, 633 A.2d at 711. This
standard requires that landowners use "reasonable care to keep [the]
premises in a safe and suitable condition so that the invitee will not be
unnecessarily or unreasonably exposed to danger." Seewaldt v. Mount Snow,
Ltd., 150 Vt. 238, 241, 552 A.2d 1201, 1202 (1988) (internal alterations
omitted), quoting Garafano v. Neshobe Beach Club, Inc., 126 Vt. 566, 572,
238 A.2d 70, 75 (1967). Although we have applied this standard in the past
to business invitees, see, e.g., Ball, 161 Vt. at 43, 633 A.2d at 711,
plaintiff would have us apply this standard to all landowner liability
We need not reach the issues of when and whether the business invitee
or reasonable care standard applies, as we find that defendants' actions
meet even this higher standard. Defendants fulfilled their duty to keep
their home free from unreasonable risks. They took steps to insure the
safety of the staircase by installing a guardrail at the top of the stairs.
As plaintiff admitted in her deposition, this guardrail was within reach as
one descended the staircase. The staircase had been in place for 20 years
and was used by plaintiff's mother without incident. On September 14, the
area was well lit and there was no allegation that a foreign substance made
the stairs more dangerous than usual. There were no hidden defects or
risks. Whatever dangers the stairs posed were obvious to any observer, and
were well known by plaintiff.
Additionally, we note that the cause of the accident was as much a
result of plaintiff's carelessness as any potential negligence by
defendants. Plaintiff did not use such care as a person exercising
reasonable care would have used in descending a spiral staircase. First,
she admits in her deposition that she did not use the available railing.
Further, she did not look down at the stairs but was looking "straight
ahead" as she stepped off the landing. Finally, despite plaintiff's stated
apprehension regarding the spiral staircase, she chose not to use other
stairs that were available for descending to the first floor.
We therefore conclude, as a matter of law, that defendants met the
standard of "reasonable care" and summary judgment was appropriate.
BY THE COURT:
Jeffrey L. Amestoy, Chief Justice
John A. Dooley, Associate Justice
James L. Morse, Associate Justice
Denise R. Johnson, Associate Justice
Marilyn S. Skoglund, Associate Justice