Supreme Court Says Jury to Decide Person’s Status in Premise Liability Case

In the wake of imminent tort reform, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has again emphasized the critical role of juries in civil cases. It is axiomatic that judges decide question of law, and juries decide questions of fact. That distinction has become blurred over the last few years.

On February 14, 2015, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued its decision in the case of Ragonese v. Racing Corp. of West Virginia. David Ragonese and his wife checked into the Mardi Gras Casino and Resort and thereafter spent several hours gambling in the casino. Mr. Ragonese left the casino and walked along a retaining wall to the hotel. After leaving the hotel, Mr. Ragonese noticed his wife outside the casino's entrance. Rather than utilizing the skyway bridge over the roadway, which he just previously walked across, Mr. Ragonese took a shortcut through shrubbery and down over a steep, grassy hillside. Mr. Ragonese fell onto the roadway and was injured.

Under West Virginia law, a property owner owes a duty of reasonable care to all non-trespassers, including invitees. On the other hand, a property owner only owes trespassers a duty to refrain from willful and wanton conduct. A trespasser is defined as one who goes upon the property or premises of another without invitation, express or implied, and does so out of curiosity, or for his own purpose or convenience, and not in the performance of any duty to the owner.

In granting summary judgment for the defendant, the circuit court ruled as a matter of law that Mr. Ragonese exceeded the scope of his invitation as an invitee and became a trespasser when he proceeded down the hillside.

On appeal, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeal reversed the circuit court's decision, noting that the circuit court reached a conclusion involving mixed questions of law and fact, and therefore, usurped the proper role of the jury.

Specifically, the Court held that "[w]here 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."

The Court's decision highlights the important role of the jury in deciding questions of fact at trial.