In Pennsylvania, land owners owe a duty to protect business invitees from foreseeable harm. In contrast, land owners do not owe a duty to business invitees for harm that is caused by a dangerous activity or condition on the land where the dangerousness is known and obvious to the business invitee.
In Westerholm v. Berry, the plaintiff, Matthew Westerholm, was hired by the defendant, Kevin Berry, to perform certain construction work at Berry’s home. Pursuant to Berry’s instructions, Westerholm cleaned Berry’s property, filling two garbage cans full of scrap wood. Subsequently, Westerholm drenched the pile of scrap wood in gasoline and lit it on fire. Upon ignition, however, the pile exploded. As a result, Westerholm suffered severe burns, which ultimately to a lawsuit.
The crux of Westerholm’s claim was that Berry breached a duty to warn him, a business invitee, of the danger of lighting the wood on fire. Berry argued, however, that even if he instructed Westerholm to create the fire, he did not owe a duty to Westerholm because Berry did not possess any “superior knowledge” that put him in a better position to understand and appreciate the risk than Westerholm. Berry further argued that the danger of lighting wood doused in gasoline would be obvious to Westerholm.
To begin, the court agreed that the relationship between Berry and Westerholm was one of land owner and business invitee, respectively. The court disagreed with Westerholm, however, and held that Berry was not liable because the danger of igniting flammable items using gasoline is both a known and obvious danger. Further, the court noted that a reasonable man exercising normal perception, intelligence, and judgment would have recognized this danger and properly avoided it. Accordingly, the court granted Berry’s motion for summary judgment reasoning that Berry owed no duty to Westerholm.
Thanks to Erin Connoly for her contribution.
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