Court of Appeals Rules Undisputed Facts Insufficient to Support Summary Judgment in Slip-and-Fall Case

On January 3, 2013, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Boyrie v. E & G Property Services, No. 11-CV-1631, slip op. (D.C. Jan. 3, 2013), in which it reviewed a trial court’s award of summary judgment for the defendants-appellees in a negligence case arising from a slip-and-fall incident.

By way of background, the undisputed facts showed that a friend of the plaintiff-appellant had arranged for a third party — who resided at an apartment building owned and managed by the appellees — to repair the appellant’s broken television. Id. at 2. Some time later, the appellant and the friend went to the building to check on the status of the repairs and did so without previously informing the third party that they were coming. Id. The third party did not respond when they rang the doorbell at the front of the building, so they walked around to the back of the building to a paved area which resembled a parking lot. Id. The appellant’s friend called out to get the third party’s attention, but apparently to no avail. Id. at 2-3. Shortly thereafter, the appellant decided to leave and then allegedly slipped and fell on ice and snow in the paved area, fracturing her ankle. Id. at 3.

In the proceedings below, the appellant claimed that she was injured in this slip-and-fall incident as a result of the appellees’ negligence in failing to remove ice and snow from the paved area behind the building. Id. at 1-3. The trial court granted summary judgment to the appellees on the grounds that the appellant, as a matter of law, “was a trespasser at the time of her fall and that appellees therefore did not owe her a duty of reasonable care.” Id. at 1. This appeal followed.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis by describing relevant legal principles: “[I]n the District of Columbia a landowner owes a duty of reasonable care to all persons . . . who are lawfully on the landowner’s premises” but “generally does not owe a duty of reasonable care to trespassers.” Id. at 4. “A trespasser is a person who enters or remains upon land in the possession of another without a privilege to do so created by the possessor’s consent or otherwise.” Id. at 4-5 (internal quotation marks omitted). “Authorization to enter property can be express or implied,” and “[o]ne may also be lawfully on premises by mere sufferance or acquiescence of the landowner, as where the landowner has not objected to a general or customary use of the premises.” Id. at 5 (internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court of Appeals then considered the undisputed facts and ruled that they were insufficient to support the trial court’s determination that the appellant, as a matter of law, was a trespasser at the time of the alleged incident. Id. at 5-8. It reasoned that although the appellant had not been expressly invited onto the property she “would be a trespasser only if she could not reasonably have believed that appellees had implicitly permitted, or acquiesced in, her entry onto the paved area.” Id. at 5. It further reasoned that, “[a]lthough the paved area was unlit, it appeared to be a parking lot, was immediately behind an apartment building, and was adjacent to a public sidewalk,” and thus “a reasonable person could have concluded that the paved area was open, perhaps to the public generally, but at a minimum to someone seeking to contact a resident in the apartment building.” Id. at 6. The Court of Appeals therefore reversed the trial court’s award of summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. Id. at 8.