Litigation | Vermont Premises Liability Law
July 18, 2014
By: Walter Judge, Jr.
Walter Judge is a commercial and intellectual property litigation partner at Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC in Burlington, Vermont.
Vermont Supreme Court makes radical change to premises liability law.
In a significant decision issued on Friday, July 18, 2014, involving a retail store, the Vermont Supreme Court has abolished the old premises liability distinction between “business invitees” (i.e., customers) and licensees (other visitors). The Court has now formally adopted a general negligence standard of reasonable care applicable to both types of visitors. The case is Demag v. Better Power Equipment, Inc., 2014 VT 78.
This case involved a visitor who was on the defendant’s business premises not as a customer, but as a vendor providing a service to the business. He fell into a storm drain in the business’s parking lot because the drain cover had been dislodged by a snowplow. The owners of the business claimed not to know that the storm drain cover had been dislodged. The visitor sued the business. The trial court classified the visitor as a “licensee” (i.e., not a customer) – as opposed to an “invitee” (i.e., a customer) and granted summary judgment to the business, reasoning that the business owed a lower standard of care to a licensee. In other words, because the visitor was a licensee, the owners owed him no legal duty to be aware that the storm drain cover had been dislodged and posed a danger to him. The Vermont Supreme Court reversed, ruling that there should no longer be any distinction in Vermont between a licensee and an invitee.
In 99% of cases, this decision will generally not affect retail or business establishments, because, with respect to customers, they were already held to the higher standard for “invitees.” However, sometimes the person who is injured in or around a business establishment might be a vendor. In such cases, the business establishment can no longer argue that it has a lower standard of care because the vendor was a “licensee.” The legal standard will now be the same regardless of whether the plaintiff is a customer of the business or a vendor. Obviously, this decision has implications for business establishments. While vendors who are injured while on another business’s premises will typically be covered by their own employer’s workers compensation insurance, they can still bring a claim against the business establishment for negligence. This decision will potentially make their claim easier to prove.