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Understanding a landowner’s duty of care to a social guest

When residents of Seattle visit their friends, legal liability is probably not in the forefront of the guest’s or homeowner’s mind. Nevertheless, serious injuries often occur in the context of a social visit, and an overview of the law of homeowner liability may provide either comfort or a warning to the homeowner.

Like most rules of tort liability in the common law, a homeowner’s duty to social guests is based upon the concept of due care. The law of negligence requires each person to use due care in dealing with others. But what is “due care”? In Washington, an owner or occupier of real estate has a legal duty to inform visitors to the premises of any dangerous conditions of which the owner has actual knowledge or about which the owner can reasonably be expected to have knowledge. In other words, the owner must notify all guests of a dangerous condition, such as a loose handrail on a stairway or a missing step. The law charges the owner or possessor of the premises with knowledge of such defects. The occupier of the premises is also charged with a duty to notify any guest of such defects and the danger they pose.

The owner’s duty is limited by a similar duty imposed on the visitor to notice and take account of dangerous conditions. If the condition is one about which the guest has actual knowledge, or if the guest can be reasonably expected to observe the condition and to exercise caution, the owner cannot be held liable for any injury caused by such a defect.

The issue, of course, is what is reasonable. Has the landlord acted reasonably in failing to notify a guest about a hidden defect of which he has actual knowledge? Or has the guest acted reasonably in ignoring a warning provided by the owner? In most cases, these questions are answered by the jury after receiving instructions from the judge.