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Smith v. Smith

Supreme Court of Kentucky

December 13, 2018



          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Bethany A. Breetz Michael D. Risley STITES & HARBISON, PLLC Darrell L. Saunders DARRELL L. SAUNDERS, PSC

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Brien Glenn Freeman Todd Kevin Childers Aaron Howard FREEMAN, CHILDERS & HOWARD




         Visitors to property are classified according to one's purpose in entering the property and whether such entry is with the consent of the property's possessor. The standard of care the possessor must exercise depends on whether the visitor is present without the possessor's consent, i.e., a trespasser; with the possessor's consent, i.e., a licensee; or with the possessor's consent as a member of the public for whom the property is held open or for the possessor's business, i.e., an invitee. In this case, Bonnie Smith was injured while at her daughter Barbara's house. The issue we must decide is whether the Knox Circuit Court erred in giving jury instructions which failed to account for Bonnie's status and misstated the duty of care owed by Barbara. We hold that the trial court did err, as did the Court of Appeals by affirming the trial court's judgment. We therefore reverse the lower courts' respective opinions and remand this matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background.

         On May 31, 2013, Bonnie arrived at her daughter Barbara's house. Barbara claims that Bonnie came over on her own accord to visit her great-granddaughter, whereas Bonnie claims she was asked to come over by Barbara to babysit her great-granddaughter after Barbara's long shift at work. Prior to Bonnie's arrival, Barbara had mopped the back deck with a soapy substance, making it slick and slippery. When Bonnie arrived, Barbara told her that the child was in the backyard, and Bonnie went through the house to the back deck to see her. Bonnie slipped and fell on the deck and suffered a serious injury to her right leg.

         Bonnie filed a complaint against Barbara and the case proceeded to trial. At trial, Bonnie testified that she could tell the floor was wet, but did not know of the floor's slick, soapy condition. Bonnie's grandson testified that the soap was visible. Barbara moved for a directed verdict at both the close of Bonnie's case and at the close of trial, on grounds that Bonnie was a licensee, and uncontroverted evidence showed that the danger was not hidden, thus preventing Barbara from being liable. Both motions were denied. The trial court also rejected Barbara's jury instruction regarding Bonnie's status as a licensee, choosing instead to give a general "ordinary care" instruction to the jury, as it determined that Kentucky no longer followed the traditional premises liability distinctions.

         The jury rendered a verdict in favor of Bonnie and apportioned 100% of the fault upon Barbara. The trial court denied Barbara's post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV"). The Court of Appeals affirmed. On appeal, Barbara claims that (1) the trial court improperly instructed the jury regarding the law of premises liability, and (2) the trial court should have directed a verdict in Barbara's favor because of Bonnie's apparent status as a licensee and testimony that the danger was not hidden.

         II. Standard of Review.

         We begin by looking at the standard of review for both improper jury instructions and directed verdict motions. On appellate review, "the substantive content of the jury instructions will be reviewed de novo." Sargent v. Shaffer, 467 S.W.3d 198, 204 (Ky. 2015). If the applicable law given through the instruction is incorrect, the error is presumed to be prejudicial. Harp v. Commonwealth, 266 S.W.3d 813, 818 (Ky. 2008).

         Furthermore, "the considerations governing a proper decision on a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict are exactly the same as those ... on a motion for a directed verdict[.]" Cassinelli v. Begley, 433 S.W.2d 651, 652 (Ky. 1968). "The trial court must draw all fair and reasonable inferences from the evidence in favor of the party opposing the motion[.]" Commonwealth v. Sawhill, 660 S.W.2d 3, 5 (Ky. 1983). Accordingly, a directed verdict should not be granted unless "there is a complete absence of proof on a material issue or if no disputed issues of fact exist upon which reasonable minds could differ." Bierman v. Klapheke, 967 S.W.2d 16, 18-19 (Ky. 1998). Lastly, "[t]he decision of the trial court will stand unless it is determined that 'the verdict rendered is palpably or fragrantly against the evidence so as to indicate that it was reached as a result of passion or prejudice."' Indiana Ins. Co. v. Demetre, 527 S.W.3d 12, 25 (Ky. 2017) (quoting Lewis v. Bledsoe Surface Mining Co., 798 S.W.2d 459, 461-62 (Ky. 1990)).

         III. Analysis.

         In a slip and fall case, a plaintiff must prove negligence on the part of the defendant. The first step in proving negligence is determining what duty, if any, the defendant owed the plaintiff. In the Commonwealth, under the doctrine of premises liability, "a landowner has a general duty to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe manner; and the scope of that duty is outlined according to the status of the plaintiff." Shelton v. Kentucky Easter Seals Soc'y, Inc., 413 S.W.3d 901, 909 n.28 (Ky. 2013) (emphasis added).

         A. The "Ordinary Care" Instruction Misstated the Law of Premises Liability.

         At trial, the court discussed with counsel several recent premises liability cases and concluded that those cases "came pretty close to getting rid of the licensee /invitee distinction." Instead of instructing the jury as to the difference between a licensee and an invitee, and a possessor's duties to them, the judge simply gave the following instruction:

         INSTRUCTION NO. 1

It was the duty of the Defendant, Barbara Smith, to exercise ordinary care to maintain her premises in a reasonably safe condition for use of her guests, including the Plaintiff, Bonnie Smith. "Ordinary care" as used in this instruction generally means such care exercised by a reasonable and prudent person under similar circumstances.

         QUESTION NO. 1

Do you find from the evidence that the Defendant, Barbara Smith, violated her duty as set forth in Instruction No. 1, and that such failure was a substantial factor in causing the accident?

         This instruction was erroneous. When interpreting the doctrine of premises liability, this Court has followed the Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965). In Shelton, we held that Section 343A, regarding open and obvious conditions, did not "shield a possessor of land from liability because a duty does not extend to the plaintiff[.]" 413 S.W.3d at 908. In like manner, this Court, when interpreting the attractive nuisance doctrine, followed the Restatement (Second) of Torts, holding that "a possessor of land is subject to liability if he 'knows or should know that the place is one upon which children are likely to trespass and that the condition is one with which they are likely to meddle.'" Mason v. City of Mt. Sterling, 122 S.W.3d 500, 507 (Ky. 2003) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 339 cmt. e). Today, in the same fashion, we continue to follow the Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 329-343, as "Kentucky law remains steadfast in its adherence to the traditional notion that duty is r- associated with the status of the injured party as an invitee, licensee, or trespasser." Shelton, 413 S.W.3d at 909.[1]

         The Commonwealth has followed this common law approach to the scope of a possessor's duty for well over one-hundred years. See S. R.R. Co. v. Goddard,121 Ky. 567, 574-75, 89 S.W. 675, 676 (1905) (discussing several authorities on duties owed to licensees, trespassers, and those who were on the premises by invitation). Under the Restatement (Second) of Torts ยง 330, a licensee is denned as a "person who is privileged to enter or remain on land only by virtue of the possessor's consent." A possessor of land owes a licensee a duty to "not ...

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