Wickham v. Hopkins (CA1 4/19/11)

The court holds that the duty to licensees on your property does not survive their leaving.

Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins went on vacation, asking a friend to house-sit and look after their 14-year-old daughter. But on Friday night the friend went out instead, the daughter started inviting people over, and a large party ensued.  Two of the guests had an argument in the kitchen, then went out into the street and had a fight. Wickham was injured; he and his parents sued, among others, the Hopkins.

The Hopkins moved for summary judgment, arguing that they had no duty toward a person not on their premises. The trial court agreed, as does this opinion.

First, though, we get a definition of “negligence,” a statement of the elements of negligence, and definitions of elements of negligence. Just in case you’d forgotten.

As a social guest Wickham was a licensee. The Hopkins did not owe him a licensee duty because he wasn’t on the property and, even if he were, the Hopkins did not violate the duty owed licensees, viz., protecting from hidden perils and not willfully or wantonly causing harm.

As to whether the Hopkins owed Wickham a general duty after he left their premises the court cites the Gipson analysis: duty is a matter of relationships and public policy. Wickham and the Hopkins had no duty-creating relationship after he left the premises because . . . well, just because. (We don’t disagree; the problem is that we-know-it-when-we-see-it analyses like Gipson’s not infrequently produce arbitrary-looking results.) The Wickhams point to invitee cases requiring safe ingress and egress but the court declines their invitation (as it has approximately 2.3 zillion times before) to abolish the distinction between licensees and invitees.

The Wickhams also argue that the Hopkins voluntarily assumed a duty to prevent the daughter from having a party by asking the friend to mind her. But by doing so they didn’t voluntarily assume a duty to young Wickham after he left. The court goes out of its way to say that it can’t consider the dangers foreseeably raised by drunken, partying teenagers because Gipson says foreseeability isn’t a factor.

In its public policy analysis the court notes that no statute suggests that there should be liability here (the Hopkins did not supply the alcohol), that it makes no sense to impose a greater duty toward guests after they leave, and that merely having a party doesn’t “implicate” a policy requiring protecting people after they’ve left it. (“Implicate” apparently means “there isn’t any such policy and if there were it would be a bad one.”)

(link to opinion)