It’s that time of year again – the autumn leaves are falling and Halloween is just around the corner. The brilliant colors are striking, the air is crisp and adorable trick or treaters will soon frequent your doorstep. As a homeowner, it’s up to you to ensure that your property is safe for those little ghosts and goblins who come calling. The majority of accidents in and around the home are preventable and you may not be aware of your responsibilities when it comes to premises liability law in Massachusetts.
Many years ago, the law distinguished between the types of people who could end up on your property. “Invitees” were classified as someone the landowner invited onto the property and the duty of the owner was to maintain the property in reasonably safe condition, free from defects or hazardous conditions. Then there was a “licensee” who was someone legally on the property but not at the invitation of the owner (deliveryman, postman, etc.). For that category, owners had to refrain from “willful, wanton or reckless conduct.” Finally, there was a “trespasser” identified as someone who has no legal right to be on your land and trespassers were barred from recovery.
All that changed in 1973 when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court abandoned the distinctions between “invitee” and “licensee” in Mounsey v. Ellard. The Court held that as long as someone was lawfully on the premises, “a landowner must act as a reasonable [person] in maintaining his property in a reasonably safe condition including the likelihood of injuries to others, the seriousness of the injury, and the burden of avoiding risk.” In 1982, “trespassers” were given a modicum of protection and in Schofield v. Merrill the Court held landowners could be liable to trespassers for injuries incurred on the owner’s property but only if the owner acted with willful, wanton or reckless disregard of the trespasser’s safety.
Where do our trick or treaters fit into this legal definition? If you have your porch light on this October 31st, there’s an assumption that children are lawful visitors on your property, so here are some guidelines to help keep your property safe this Halloween:
Scour your property for any dangers including: broken stairs, damaged handrails, sinkholes, wet leaves, broken doors or other defects that could cause an accident or injury.
Be sure your property is well-lit and there is a clear path to your front door If you discover something amiss and don’t have time to fix it before Halloween, be sure to adequately identify the area with signage or yellow tape and direct them to another door or better yet, stand outside and give out the candy. Your duty is to warn visitors about any defects that could cause harm as well as fix them.
Renters, beware - you may also have the responsibility of keeping the premises safe so check your lease agreement to see what your responsibilities are concerning maintaining the premises in a safe condition.
So before the goblins come knocking his Halloween, take a good look around your yard and fix anything that’s in need of repair, broken or could cause injury to someone unfamiliar with your property. I wish you all a safe and Happy Halloween!