Property owner negated premise duty as a matter of law involving brown-recluse spider attack on invitee

Homer Hillis v Henry McCall, 18-1065 (Tex. March 13, 2020)

This is a premises-liability case where the Texas Supreme Court ruled the property owner negated as a matter of law the duty to warn of the brown-recluse spider danger. While not a governmental liability case, the analysis of knowledge would be similar.

Hillis owns a bed and breakfast (the B&B) and a neighboring cabin which he rents out. Hillis hired a housekeeper to prepare and clean the B&B before guests arrived. That process included utilizing “bug bombs” in the event the housekeeper noticed any pest problems, on an “as needed” basis. Hillis leased the neighboring cabin on the property to Henry McCall, and utilized him as a handyman. Hillis typically called McCall several days before guests arrived and asked him to perform various tasks associated with B&B services. While checking under the sink for a leak in response to a Hillis call, McCall was bitten by a brown recluse spider. Before he was bitten, McCall had observed spiders in both the cabin and the B&B on several occasions and had notified Hillis about the general presence of spiders. Hillis asserted he would pass along the information to the housekeeper to take care of. McCall sued Hillis for negligence under a premises-liability theory, alleging that the presence of brown recluse spiders on Hillis’s property constituted an unreasonably dangerous condition. Hillis filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that, under the longstanding doctrine of ferae naturae, he owed no duty to McCall with respect to indigenous wild animals that Hillis had neither introduced to nor harbored on the property. The trial court granted the MSJ and McCall appealed.

The Texas Supreme Court held the duties owed by a landowner in a premises-liability case “depend upon the role of the person injured on his premises.”  When the injured person qualifies as an invitee, as McCall did by admission of the parties,  then as a general rule the landowner owes a “duty to make safe or warn against any concealed, unreasonably dangerous conditions of which the landowner is or reasonably should be, aware but the invitee is not.” The duty does not extend to warning the invitee of hazards that are open and obvious. The Court also recognized that with certain exceptions, a premises owner generally owes no duty to protect invitees from wild animals on the owner’s property. Wild animals “exist throughout nature” and are “generally not predictable or controllable.” The exception to this doctrine is when wild animals are found in artificial structures or places where they are not normally found, the landowner knows or should know of the unreasonable risk of injury and patrons would not be expected to recognize the danger. Under this exception, the landowner owes the general duty owed to an invitee to warn or make safe unreasonably dangerous conditions they know or should know about. However, many insects and spiders are commonly found indoors. The ever-present possibility that an insect or spider bite may occur indoors does not amount to an unreasonable risk of harm. The Court analyzed the record and listed pertinent facts. The Court found knowledge of the general intermittent presence of spiders does not necessarily amount to knowledge of an unreasonable risk of harm, and Hillis had no particular reason to know that brown recluses, or other venomous spiders, were inside the B&B. Further, McCall and Hillis had identical actual knowledge of the presence of spiders on the property. According to McCall, Hillis should have warned him that the spiders McCall himself had seen and reported to Hillis were dangerous. The Court expressly stated “[w]e will not impose a duty on a landowner to warn an invitee about something he already knows.”  As a result, Hillis negated a duty to McCall as a matter of law.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The docket page can be found here.