Illinois Supreme Court Seems Skeptical of Expansive Interpretation of Distraction Exception to Open-and-Obvious

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Our reports on the oral arguments during the May term of the Illinois Supreme Court continue with Bruns v. City of Centralia. Bruns poses a question with the potential to blow a significant hole in the open-and-obvious peril doctrine of tort law: does the doctrine apply when a reasonable property owner can reasonably expect visitors to the property to be looking somewhere else? Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court decisions in Bruns is here.

The eighty year old plaintiff in Bruns tripped over a raised section of sidewalk in front of the entrance to her eye clinic, severely injuring her shoulder and arm. The three-inch high defect in the sidewalk was well known at the time of the accident; the Clinic had reported the situation to the City, even offering to have the tree removed at its own expense. But the City’s tree committee had refused permission for the tree to be removed, citing the tree’s historic significance. The plaintiff had been aware of the sidewalk defect from previous visits to the Clinic, but at the time of the accident, her attention was focused on the Clinic steps and entrance, not the sidewalk.

The trial court found that the defendant owed the plaintiff no duty of care as a matter of law, applying the open-and-obvious-peril rule. The court held that given that the City neither created, contributed to nor was otherwise responsible for the Clinic door and steps, the distraction exception didn’t apply.

The Appellate Court reversed. The distraction exception applied where there was reason to expect that a plaintiff’s attention may be distracted, the court held. Under such circumstances, the property owner’s duty is reinstated. The important issue, the Court held, was the likelihood that the plaintiff’s attention would be distracted, not whether the defendant had foreseen the precise nature of the distraction. It was not necessary for a defendant to foresee the precise nature of the distraction; all that was needed was for it to be reasonable that a plaintiff would be distracted and fail to notice the open-and-obvious risk. Taking all factors into account, there was sufficient grounds to find a duty of care. Therefore, the Appellate Court held, the matter should have been sent to the jury.

Counsel for the City began by reminding the Court that all parties agreed that this was an open and obvious condition. The question turned on the distraction exception found in Comment f of Section 343(A) of the Restatement. Counsel argued that the Appellate Court’s holding means that a plaintiff is not required to show that she was required or caused to look elsewhere – merely that she was, in fact, distracted. If a plaintiff is merely required to say that he or she was, as a matter of fact, distracted at the time of a fall, the exception swallows the rule. But the Fifth District didn’t stop there, according to counsel for the City; circumstances in which the plaintiff would be distracted, whether or not they actually occurred, would trigger the exception. Justice Theis suggested that the usual analytical framework for duty would be reasonable foreseeability, magnitude of injury, magnitude of burden and the consequences of placing that burden – how do these ideas work together in this context? Counsel responded that the open and obvious exception affected the first two factors in the analysis. Where a risk is open and obvious, the likelihood of injury is slight, and foreseeability is less. Justice Theis asked whether the distraction issue was grounded in one or more of these four elements. Counsel responded that the Restatement recognizes that there may be circumstances when a plaintiff’s attention may be distracted. That affects whether a risk is open and obvious. Justice Theis asked whether foreseeability was the keystone of the open and obvious distraction. Counsel agreed that it was. Foreseeability is not 20-20, counsel argued; it’s not everything that could occur. Once the Appellate Court went beyond the routine to hypotheticals, the distraction exception would become universal, and there would be nothing left of open-and-obvious. Justice Kilbride asked what the defendant was asking the court to decide beyond the duty or the exception. Counsel answered that there should be guidelines presented to the Appellate Court to harmonize precedent and ensure uniformity of decision. Because of the uncertainty in the applicable standards, the Appellate Court strayed into hypotheticals where it doesn’t matter what actually happened to the plaintiff – a landowner can be held liable because of what might have happened. Chief Justice Garman asked whether the fact that there had been prior complaints about the sidewalk had any place in the analysis. Counsel said no, because it doesn’t change the fact that the risk was still open and obvious, and thus could be seen, recognized and avoided. While notice is arguably relevant to determining breach, it is not for purposes of duty.

Justice Thomas asked counsel for the plaintiff about the Appellate Court’s heavy reliance on Harris v. Old Kent Bank from the Fifth District, which didn’t seem to relate to the open and obvious exception. Counsel argued that Harris was important for its recognition that people can be doing things which will make even a minimal issue into a distraction. Justice Thomas suggested that Harris was distinguishable – here, the plaintiff was arriving, not leaving, where she might be reading papers. She wasn’t having trouble with her eyes which made it difficult to see the sidewalk defect. Counsel answered that she was looking at the door and the steps – no less reasonable conduct than that in Harris. Justice Thomas asked if the door of the clinic qualified, what would not qualify as a distraction. Counsel responded that while that was a valid concern as a general matter, the plaintiff’s conduct was both reasonable and foreseeable. This was a “unique” condition, counsel argued – everyone who has seen it has said it’s hazardous. Chief Justice Garman asked whether counsel was arguing that prior notice made the doorway more foreseeable as a distraction. Counsel answered that what constitutes a foreseeable distraction considerably overlaps with foreseeability. The Chief Justice asked whether finding for the plaintiff would make all of downtown Chicago into a big distraction.  Counsel suggested that in a busy downtown area, with a public sidewalk in front of a department store, it wasn’t a good policy to suggest that the city could simply ignore a defect on the grounds that it was an open and obvious hazard. The Chief Justice remarked that there are miles of sidewalks. Counsel answered that not all were in front of store windows; some were in places where one would not reasonably expect distracted pedestrians. Justice Karmeier returned to Justice Thomas’ question – under plaintiff’s standard, what isn’t a distraction? Counsel responded that here, the plaintiff’s distraction was fully foreseeable; perhaps a sidewalk in a park or along a roadway would present a different case. Justice Thomas suggested that there are open and obvious hazard cases in which the foreseeability of harm is even greater than it was here, and that counsel’s example of a sudden strike for a low-flying bird would have a better chance of defeating open-and-obvious than a clinic door. Counsel suggested that there is always an element of the self-created in any distraction case. The question is whether the plaintiff is behaving reasonably. Justice Burke asked whether, in any city of any size, a broad ruling for plaintiff might result in cities blocking sidewalks, since a city can’t keep up with maintenance of miles and miles of sidewalks. Counsel pointed out that there were specific complaints here, and even if the dismissal is reversed, plaintiff still has to get past the jury. Justice Thomas asked whether counsel would agree that if there is no showing of distraction here, the peril is open and obvious regardless of foreseeability. Counsel agreed. Justice Thomas suggested that plaintiff was arguing for a decision based on whether the defendant could foresee this particular distraction. Counsel agreed that was so, and pointed out that that was the Appellate Court’s opinion. Justice Thomas suggested that the question was whether it was reasonable for the plaintiff to be distracted – what the defendant knew or didn’t know didn’t matter. Counsel suggested that the two concepts were a distinction without a difference, and that it was impossible to say that it’s unreasonable for plaintiff to have been looking forward while she was walking. Justice Theis suggested that historically, the open and obvious exception comes from obvious perils such as bonfires and water where it can reasonably be anticipated that a reasonable person won’t approach. Was counsel suggesting that no matter how extreme a hazard is, a landowner must consider the possibility that a potential plaintiff might be looking somewhere else? Counsel argued that that point was for the jury.

Counsel for the City began rebuttal by arguing that the plaintiff had been to the site nine times before, and had always seen the defect. This case had never been about eyesight problems, and Harris had nothing to do with open and obvious. Justice Thomas asked how the Court should define a valid distraction. Counsel answered that the law doesn’t require the landowner to be aware of everything, and the issue should turn on whether the plaintiff was required to focus her attention somewhere else. Here, the plaintiff saw the building, saw the condition and had plenty of time to chart a course and avoid injury. Justice Thomas asked counsel whether he believed that the issue was whether distraction was foreseeable. Counsel answered that the distraction exception doesn’t lend itself to hard-and-fast rules. Justice Thomas asked whether there’s any place in the analysis for how reasonable it was for plaintiff to be distracted. Counsel answered no – the reasonableness of plaintiff’s actions go to contributory negligence, while the question of distraction goes to the defendant’s reason to foresee distractions. Justice Thomas asked whether it would be a different case if the plaintiff had been distraught, with other things on her mind. Counsel answered that there was a similar case from the Appellate Court, and there, the Court said if subjective actual distraction was enough, the exception would swallow the rule. The bottom line, counsel argued, was if property owners must foresee plaintiffs’ negligence, the open and obvious doctrine has been destroyed.

We expect Bruns to be decided in three to four months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Daniel Olnes.

 

Topics:  Open-and-Obvious-Danger Doctrine, Premises Liability

Published In: Civil Procedure Updates, Personal Injury Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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