By: Carmelo T. Torraca, Esquire
On August 19, 2016, in the unpublished decision of Noone v. Akshar Lackawanna Station Hospitality, L.P., the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, Appellate Division, upheld the Trial Court’s granting of a summary judgment motion in a negligent security/victim’s rights claim. The rationale expressed by the Court is that the business invitee relationship ceased and allowed Plaintiff to be considered a trespasser on the site for which a different duty is owed.
The facts briefly inform that Plaintiff and his friend were patrons of the Traxx Bar & Grill in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Traxx Bar & Grill is located at the Radisson Station Hotel. Various fights occurred in the bar during the evening, and management notified the police and told all patrons to leave. Traxx closed early that evening, around midnight. Plaintiff and his associate walked to another bar, about two blocks away. They left their car at the Radisson parking lot. Radisson posted signs that read “Parking While At Radisson Hotel. All Others Will Be Towed At Vehicle Owner’s Expense” and “Guest Parking, Unauthorized Vehicle Towed Away.”
Docket No. 2016 Pa. Super. Unpub. Lexis 3023.
Plaintiff and his associate closed the other bar at approximately 2:00 a.m. and returned to the Radisson parking lot at approximately 2:30 a.m. At that time, another fight occurred in this parking lot. The assailant was never identified; however, the Plaintiff suffered a triple fracture of the cheekbone and over 100 stitches, scarring, jaw clicking, headaches, and related injuries. Plaintiff brought this action against the various Defendants for negligent maintenance of security in this parking lot.
The Trial Court granted summary judgment in favor of the businesses and landowners, reasoning that by keeping Plaintiff’s vehicle in the lot after hours when Plaintiff was told to leave and did, in fact, leave, Plaintiff ceased being a business invitee to the site. Even upon Plaintiff’s return, it was not to patronize any of the businesses located in the lot; rather, it was for Plaintiff’s own convenience to pick up his vehicle. At this point, the Court considered Plaintiff a trespasser. As a trespasser, the Court concluded that he was only owed a duty to avoid “willful misconduct or wanton negligence.”
On appeal, Plaintiff argued that the Trial Court erred by concluding that Plaintiff was a trespasser versus a business invitee and that there existed genuine issues of material fact for a jury to determine. Instead, the Appellate Court upheld the Trial Court’s ruling finding that after the Defendants closed the bar, directing their patrons to leave, Plaintiff did leave and ceased becoming a business invitee of the Defendants. Additionally, upon leaving their vehicle at the Radisson parking lot, out of personal convenience rather than to repatronize the businesses, they became trespassers to the lot. Finding that Plaintiff was no longer a business invitee to the Defendants, the Defendants owed no duty to the Plaintiff other than to avoid wanton and willful negligent misconduct. The Court even went so far as to acknowledge that while generally the determination of whether someone is an invitee, licensee, or trespasser is a question for the jury, there was sufficient information here for the Court to make that determination.
The significance of this decision is that in New Jersey, the designation of business invitee, trespasser, or licensee at a particular premises have become less critical in determining the duty owed to a plaintiff by the landowner in negligent security cases. In Gonzalez v. Safe & Sound, the Supreme Court of New Jersey further eroded that distinction. However, it is clear that in Pennsylvania, the designee of the victim as a trespasser still holds significant merit in order to defend these negligent security claims.