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Under the common law, premises were merely required to be reasonably safe, but under the safe place statute, Wis. Stat. § 101.01 (1999-2000), liability is imposed if the premises are not kept as free from danger as the nature of the place will reasonably permit. Safe-place law, however, does not require an employer or an owner of a public building to be insurers of frequenters of the premises. Instead, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has held that "safe" is a relative term that does not mean completely free of any hazards. What constitutes a safe place depends upon the facts and conditions present, and the use to which the place was likely to be put. Just because a place could be more safe, it does not necessarily follow that an owner has breached the duty of care established by Wis. Stat. § 101.11(1) (1999-2000).
Due to the careless use of candles by hotel guests, a fire broke. Although the fire was contained to the room in which it started, a few guests suffered from smoke inhalation and sustained injury as they jumped or were lowered from their second-floor rooms. The guests instituted a suit against the defendant hotel and its insurer, contending that the hotel violated Wisconsin's safe-place law since the hotel’s fire alarm system was defective. Judgment was entered in favor of the guests. Defendants appealed, arguing that the evidence presented at trial failed to establish a violation of Wisconsin's safe-place law, Wis. Stat. § 101.11.
Did the defendant hotel violate the Wisconsin's safe-place law, Wis. Stat. § 101.11?
On appeal, the court held that, as a matter of law, there was no credible evidence that the hotel violated Wisconsin's safe-place law, under which liability would be imposed if the premises were not kept as free from danger as the nature of the place would reasonably permit. Where the hotel complied with all standards established by the Department of Commerce for hotels, the jury could not substitute its conclusion as to safety for those of the body vested by statute with the power to determine the matter. While the guests argued that the hotel's fire alarm system was defective, the safe-place law required that a premises owner have notice of the defect in order to be held liable. The evidence suggested no such notice but established that the local fire department conducted a semi-annual inspection of the hotel and found no violations or deficiencies related to the alarm system.