Motta v. Clark, 2016 ABQB 211 (CanLII)
Once in a while, a case comes along provoking some sobering thought. Motta v. Clark is one such case. It raises the issue about the potential liability for personal injury damages arising from the seemingly simple act of inviting a friend over to the house for a social evening.
Ronald Clark invited his good friend Joe Motta over to his house on a Friday evening for a social night in Clark’s “man cave”, his garage. There was a history of Clark entertaining friends in his garage and Motta had been invited to drink beer and socialize on numerous prior occasions. While the evidence showed that both Motta and Clark had consumed a substantial amount of beer both in the time leading up to and during the evening in question, alcohol was found not to factor into what ultimately transpired.
Historically, when Clark entertained friends in his garage, it was his practice and that of his guests to urinate in the backyard when the need was called for. They did not use the bathroom in the house. On this particular night, however, Motta apparently needed to have a bowel movement and asked Clark if he could use the bathroom in the house. Clark was happy to oblige telling Motta to use the upstairs bathroom.
For reasons unimportant to this review, Clark several weeks prior had disabled the motion sensor lighting meant to illuminate the back of the house at night in the vicinity of the outside entrance. The house was in complete darkness with no lights turned on inside or out. Motta was able to find the back door entry to the house. He opened the door, stepped onto the landing inside the door with his left foot and began reaching around in the dark with his right arm for a light switch which he thought was on the wall to the left just inside the entrance. He then brought his right foot through the door expecting to place it on the landing inside the door. Instead, his right foot came down on the first step of the staircase leading to the basement from the left side of the landing inside the back entrance. He tumbled down the staircase suffering significant injuries. At trial, only the question of liability for the injuries remained to be determined by the court.
Liability in this case, turned on the Occupiers’ Liability Act of Alberta, a statute very similar to occupiers’ liability legislation in other parts of Canada including Nova Scotia. All versions of occupiers’ liability legislation across Canada impose some variation of the duty on the occupier of a property to “take such care as in all the circumstances of the case is reasonable to see the visitor will be reasonably safe in using the premises for the purposes for which the visitor is invited or permitted by the occupier to be there or is permitted by law to be there.”
The court determined that it was reasonably foreseeable by Clark that a visitor entering the back door of his house in the dark and without any light on in or outside the house might, even if exercising care, risk falling down the basement stairs. That reasonable foreseeability gave rise to a duty of care owed by Clark to Motta to ensure the house was reasonably safe for the purpose for which Clark invited Motta to use it.
The trial judge found that Clark breached his duty of care to Motta. Clark had invited Motta to join him for a social evening in his garage. He permitted Motta to access the Clark residence for the purpose of using the upstairs washroom. Clark knew that the outside lights at the back door of his house had been disabled. He also knew that there were no lights on in the house when he told Motta he could enter the house and use the bathroom. Clark knew that Motta would have to reach out over the stairwell to get the light switch he needed to turn on in order to see where he was going. The first step down the staircase to the basement was virtually on the immediate left as one entered the door from outside. In all of this, Clark was found to have breached his duty to Motta to ensure that the house was reasonably safe under the circumstances to authorize Motta to enter the house and use the washroom.
On the other hand, the court also found that Motta contributed in some measure to the cause of his own injuries. He could have returned to the garage to request Clark’s assistance in finding the lights in the house. He had a lighter and a cell phone that he could have used to provide enough illumination to note the stairs and find the light switch. In the end, the court apportioned liability 2/3rds to Clark and 1/3rd to Motta.
The case reminds us that unintended accidents can happen on our properties whenever we invite people to our homes for social reasons or otherwise. While we all carry house insurance that in many cases will cover these accidents, there may be things we’ve done (e.g., like disabling motion sensor lights designed to illuminate important areas at night)that might possibly void our coverage. Even with insurance protection, it is useful to be reminded from time to time, that when we invite friends over to our homes, we owe them a legal duty to ensure our properties are reasonably safe for their use.