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Student Paralyzed in Apt. Fall to Get $11.6M

By Betty Wang, JD | Last updated on

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."

Premises Liability

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:

  • Invitee, which refers to someone who is on the premises for business purposes, such as a customer of a retail store;
  • Licensee, which applies to one who is on the premises for social purposes, such as a party; or
  • Trespasser, which is someone not authorized to be on the property, such as a burglar.

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:

  • Landlord's duties. Your landlord has a certain set of duties, such as keeping the rented property in habitable condition and making repairs as needed. So if you notice any defects or possible dangers on your property, check your lease -- your landlord may be responsible for repairing it.
  • Social host liability. Be careful at your next party. A social host could be liable for a number of things, including accidents stemming from unsafe premises and even alcohol-related injuries that stem from providing alcohol to minors.
  • Warn about all known dangers. Tenants also should warn their guests about all possible dangers that you're aware of on your property.

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.

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