ANNAPOLIS – A for-sale sign is not an “invitation to come onto the property” and trespassers should not expect to collect damages if they are injured during unsanctioned visits, the Court of Special Appeals ruled Tuesday.
The case stemmed from a 1995 incident in which two women who were looking into an Ocean City beach house fractured their ankles after the front steps of the dilapidated house collapsed underneath them.
Julie Wells and Sandra Panneton were vacationing in Ocean City from Virginia when they were drawn to the house at 17 63rd St. because it was for sale. The house sits close to the sidewalk and was not fenced, they said.
They first entered the basement through an open door, then left the basement and walked up a wooden stairway to the front door, which was ajar. After looking into the enclosed porch, they turned to walk down when the staircase collapsed.
David M. Polland, the owner of the house, had received several notices from the Ocean City Building Code Enforcement Office that the property violated multiple code provisions. The first notice, in July 1991, said, “Stair needs to be replaced.”
Eventually, a sign was nailed to the top of the steps warning that the property was uninhabitable and yellow caution tape was draped across the staircase, according to court records. After the staircase collapsed, a police investigator found the yellow tape wrapped around a handrail.
The injured women sued Polland and the realty company, Long & Foster, claiming that the sale sign and wide-open basement door constituted an “implied invitation.” Their attorney, Daniel Shea, argued that the sellers were seeking visitors “just as a merchant wants customers to come into his place of business and examine his wares.”
But a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge rejected that argument.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld that decision, agreeing with the defendants’ argument that “an unoccupied house with an open basement door is simply not analogous to a retail store with a staff present.”
“It is unreasonable to suggest that every time an owner or real estate company places a `sale’ sign outside a house, the owner or company are `inviting’ people to come in, and we are hesitant to hold as such,” Judge Arrie W. Davis wrote for the court.
He noted that a for-sale sign in the window of a car with unlocked doors does not serve as an invitation for passers-by to climb in.
Because the women were trespassers, not visitors, the court ruled that the defendants did not have to take the “reasonable and ordinary” care of posting a warning on the property.
“A land owner does not have a duty to make the land safe for trespassers or to warn trespassers of any potential dangers,” Davis wrote, concluding that the defendants did not engage in the kind of “willful or wanton” misconduct or entrapment for which they could have been held liable.
Shea could not say whether he would appeal the ruling until after he talked to his clients.