Visitor, Trespasser, Invitee: Why Labels Matter in West Virginia Premises Liability Cases – Ragonese v. Racing Corporation of West Virginia

A person or entity that owns property in West Virginia is typically required to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe manner and to warn others about any hazards. The “duty of care” that a property owner owes to visitors varies, however, depending on why the person is there in the first place. As the state’s Supreme Court recently explained, “invitees” must be warned of and adequately protected from any hazards of which the property owner is or should be aware. For “trespassers,” on the other hand, an owner simply must refrain from “willful or wanton” conduct that causes the person injury.

do-not-enter-1444577-m.jpgMr. Ragonese was injured in an accident while visiting the Mardi Gras Casino & Resort outside Charleston. After gambling for a few hours with his wife, Ragonese went to the casino’s hotel to see if he could get a room on the house. Although he used a walkway to get to the hotel from the casino, Ragonese tried a shortcut on the way back. He stepped through a line of shrubbery and proceeded down a grassy area before abruptly reaching a retaining wall. Ragonese said he had noticed the wall on his way to the hotel, but he forgot about it on the way back. He slid down the wall and fell to the ground below, fracturing his leg in the process. Ragonese later sued the casino for his injuries.

Granting summary judgment to the casino, a trial court said Ragonese started as a business invitee when he entered the property but became a trespasser when he decided to take the shortcut. Finding that the casino didn’t act willfully or wantonly to cause Ragonese’s injury, the court said Ragonese couldn’t seek damages for his injuries.

On further appeal, the Supreme Court said that it was for a jury to decide whether Ragonese went from a business invitee to a trespasser when he decided to step off the sidewalk and onto the grounds of the hotel property. “Because the issue of whether his actions served to change his status from that of invitee to trespasser was in dispute, we conclude that the trial court usurped the proper role of a fact finder,” the Court explained. “Where, as in this case, factual issues exist as to whether an invitee has forfeited his or her status by going to a portion of the premises to which the invitation of usage may not extend, those issues should be resolved by a jury.”

For example, the Court said Ragonese should be considered a visitor if he was in an area of the property where he was invited or that the casino “should have reasonably anticipated” he would use. In addition, the Court found that it remained to be determined whether the shrubbery was maintained in a way that served as a barrier to the area or would have alerted Ragonese to the fact that he was prohibited from using that area. These, the Court said, were issues to be considered by a jury.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident on another’s property, the Wolfe Law Firm can help. Our West Virginia premises liability lawyers have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

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