The Des Moines Register is reporting on a change in the law initiated by the Iowa Supreme Court. Before last week, a centuries-old provision distinguished between different classes or categories of people who were injured on others’ property. Those classes of people – people who are invited onto property (“invitees”), those people who are merely allowed on the property (“licensees”), and those that are not permitted on property (“trespassers”) – used to be treated differently. Invitees could sue over dangers that should have been known to the property owner, but licensees and trespassers could not. Although trespassers still do not have standing to sue a property owner in most circumstances (there are exceptions not discussed here), the difference between invitees and licensees has been eradicated.
In a ruling delivered on Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court reviewed the case of Valerie Koenig, a Des Moines resident. She had injured herself when she tripped over a carpet-cleaner hose in her son’s house, and sued. When the jury was instructed in her case, they were told about the difference between licensees and invitees. Koenig was a licensee, and as a result, she lost in court. But she appealed, arguing that distinguishing between invitees and licensees was outdated and did not fit the needs of a modern society. The highest court in the state agreed. Justice Brent Appel stated that the change in the law reflected “higher valuation of public safety over property rights.” Koenig’s lawyer remarked that he did not believe that the ruling would change how businesses and individuals act. However, the change in the law may serve as a good reminder to all that property owners should care for hazardous conditions on their property and warn those that visit the property of any potential danger.
The full impact of the ruling will likely reach past the jury box, where the discarded distinction between invitee and licensee has confused many. What impact it will have, and whether this kind of ruling might entice the Supreme Court to discard other “out-dated” distinctions remains to be seen.