A former college student who was paralyzed after falling 20 feet at an off-campus residence has reached an $11.6 million settlement for her injuries.
Former University of Pennsylvania student Lorna Bernhoft was a junior at the time of her injury in 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Bernhoft fell through a raised skylight opening on the fourth floor of a building; the opening was covered only by flex board and carpet.
Bernhoft's lawsuit named as defendants the building's owner and student tenants who were aware of the opening. As her lawyer told the Inquirer, this case shows "there are dangerous defects in rental housing, especially in off-campus housing, and every parent and student should be aware."
The main issue in this case likely involved premises liability, which holds landlords and tenants responsible for any accidents and injuries that occur on their property. Of course, some accidents can't be prevented or predicted, but generally, landowners and occupiers are responsible for maintaining a reasonably safe environment.
The level of responsibility depends on the legal status of the visitor, who would fall into one of three categories:
Because Bernhoft was attending a student gathering at the off-campus residence, she would likely have been considered a licensee. That would make the landowner/occupier liable for any damages that stem from a condition he or she should have known about but failed to take reasonable steps to fix, and that the licensee wasn't aware of. (To see how this is applied in court in Pennsylvania, the case of Cresswell v. End offers one example.)
In Bernhoft's case, a court could potentially have found that the building owners should have taken reasonable steps to fix the opening and also that the student tenants should have at least warned Bernhoft.
Tips for Student Renters
As mentioned, premises liability does not just fall on owners, but applies to any other occupiers, such as student tenants. The next time someone is on your property, keep these helpful tips in mind:
Had Bernhoft's case gone to trial, it's possible that a jury would have found that the landlord should have repaired the opening, while the students should have warned her about it.
Have particular questions about injuries on your property? Contact an experienced premises liability attorney who can help.