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Personal Liability From Holiday Decorations

“Are you creating an unsafe environment and exposing yourself to personal liability in connection with your holiday decorations?  For example, is there a danger of liability associated with yard decorations, extension cords, lights, garland, etc.”

holiday legalAnswer:   Yes, potentially. Negligence law can be applied to virtually any activity.  In other words, anything you do can potentially be done in a negligent manner.  This is the opposite of intending to create harm.

Negligence is making a preventable mistake. It is the harm that results from not being as careful as the ordinary person should be in carrying out the same activity.   Technically, negligence consists of satisfying four elements: 1) owing someone a duty to be careful.  2) Breaking that duty.  3)  Causing a consequence.  4)  the consequence is harm of some kind (economic or noneconomic or both).  Noneconomic harm is commonly called pain and suffering.  See Casey v. Geiger, 499 A.2d 606 (Pa. 1985); Macina v. McAdams, 421 A.2d 432, 434 (Pa. Super. 1980).

Therefore, yes, you can be found negligent in connection with any holiday activity IF and only IF you have performed it in a negligent way.  There has to be negligence in how you did it for you to be found liable under Pennsylvania common law.  Examples would be:  putting excessive garland on a handrail down a steep flight of steps, making it difficult to grasp the handrail (we had a case just like this and recovered a substantial sum for the elderly lady who fell down a flight of stairs);  failing to illuminate a decorative item in your front yard bordering the sidewalk, such that a pedestrian could trip over it; putting luminaries (bags with candles and sand) along the sidewalk in front of your house if not properly weighed down so they don’t blow away.

It is difficult to provide a list of all negligent activities because quite simply, someone do any activity negligently. In other words, it can be done in a way that causes harm, even though you were not meaning to cause harm, but someone got hurt anyway. Indeed, the intentional causing of harm to another usually constitutes a crime.  We are talking about negligently causing harm, which is called a “tort.”   Most negligent actions do not also constitute crimes.

There is no simple definition for what is a negligent act, but it is essentially a mistake in not doing any task in a prudent, safe, cautious and careful way.  Taking shortcuts is negligence. Jerry-rigging is negligence.  “Doing a MacGyver” in setting up your decorations is negligence.

We’re not saying skip your holiday decorations.

We are not Scrooge, unless you are an insurance company.  But, we are saying carry on your holiday activities with all due deliberate care and caution.  Don’t rush.  Don’t take shortcuts.  If unsure whether to add more lighting or visibility, add it.  If unsure whether to add more sand to your luminaries, add it. Use new extension cords.  Don’t use indoor lights for outdoor use. Keep candles away from any evergreen decorations.  Make sure your smoke detectors have fresh batteries in them—all of them.

Doing more than the minimum is probably not negligence.  Doing the bare minimum, or less, could well be.  Most of all, spend quality time with your family and remember the experience is more important than what is under the tree.

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