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Kates Nussman Rapone Ellis & Farhi, LLP

Thanksgiving: A Time for Giving Thanks or Filing Lawsuits?

With the assistance of Charles J. Vaccaro, Candidate for J.D. Degree, May 2015.

Thanksgiving is a time for family to come together and be grateful for things such as their health, job, or home. However, family gatherings can also result in the filing of a lawsuit. That happened once upon a time in Ohio.

A seven year old attended Thanksgiving dinner at the home of her aunt and uncle. After dinner, accompanied by her cousin, she went outside and crawled under an electric wire fence that enclosed the aunt and uncle's horse stable area. Unfortunately, the child was kicked in the face by a horse and was injured. Her mother filed suit against her sister and brother-in-law, claiming negligence and seeking damages for Erica's injuries.

The legal basis of the case revolved was "premises liability." This means the legal exposure property owners face for accidents and injuries on their property. They owe certain "duties" to those who enter their land and they vary depending on whether the person is a trespasser, is licensed to do so, or was invited. The aunt and uncle claimed that their niece was a trespasser because she did not have their permission to leave the house or enter the stable area. Her mother said that she was not a trespasser but a social guest and was owed a duty of care appropriate to her young age and that another duty was owed to warn her parents about the horse.

The trial court dismissed the lawsuit and an appeals court upheld the decision (ain't that a kick in the head). The appellate court found that the child did not have permission to enter the stable area and was never allowed to roam freely in any part of the property without adult supervision. So the child became a trespasser when she did so. She had been warned to avoid the electric fence, and had been warned of the danger posed by horses.

This Thanksgiving, be sure to inspect your property before inviting family and friends over. Having them sign a waiver before serving the turkey may be too much, but doing what's reasonable will let you spend the holiday watching the parade or football instead of worrying about being in court standing before a judge.

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