Bruns v. City of Centralia, 2014 IL 116998
As discussed in a previous post, a landowner must protect those people present on the landowner’s land from dangerous conditions on the land. However, when a dangerous condition is open and obvious, the landowner can assume that a reasonably prudent person would, on his or her own accord, take the proper precautions to avoid the danger. But, just because a danger is open and obvious does not mean that someone injured by it is without any legal recourse. There is a balancing test to determine whether the landowner owed a duty to the invitee despite the openness and obviousness of the dangerous condition.
The four factors are:
- Likelihood of the injury;
- The burden on the land owner in guarding against the injury; and
- The consequence of placing that burden on the land owner.
When a court finds that the danger was open and obvious, the weight of the first two factors tip in the landowner’s favor. With a danger that is not open and obvious the inverse in true. Because the court applies a balancing test in these types of cases, depending on the circumstances, one factor could be given much more weight than another.
In other words, an open and obvious danger could still leave a landowner liable if she can reasonably anticipate an invitee will get distracted, causing the invitee to not discover, forget about, or fail to protect herself from the obvious danger. This is known as the distraction exception to the open and obvious rule. Enter, Virginia Bruns, as she was walking to her eye appointment in Centralia, Illinois, just as she did nine times in the three months. This time, though, she stubbed her toe on an uneven slab of sidewalk, causing her to fall and injure herself.
This particular sidewalk has a history of being defective. The defect gradually developed due to the roots of a nearby tree. The eye clinic, in two instances, contacted the city to have the tree removed, even offering to do it themselves. The city refused because of the 100 year old tree’s historical significance. On the second occasion, the eye clinic called because someone tripped and fell on the sidewalk. Virginia testified that she noticed the defect during her preceding visits.
She sued the City of Centralia alleging that Centralia should have reasonably foreseen that someone would become distracted and fail to protect herself from the dangerous condition. The distraction Virginia was asserting involved her looking at the door of her destination. The Circuit court ruled that the sidewalk defect was open and obvious and rejected Virginia’s distraction argument. Virginia’s argument, the circuit court opined, leads to an expansion of negligence law that would provide a universal exception to the entire open and obvious doctrine because anybody could then claim they were distracted by anything at all.
Virginia appealed, the appellate court found that it was certainly foreseeable that one might have their attention focused on their destination rather than on the sidewalk immediately ahead. Further, that Centralia had a duty to remedy the defect in a reasonable time frame but determining breach is a question of fact. Centralia appealed to Illinois Supreme Court, who reversed the appellate court and affirmed the circuit court.
The Illinois Supreme Court concluded that the mere fact of looking elsewhere does not constitute a distraction because a landowner cannot anticipate and protect against every single event that may occur in the distracted minds of his invitees. That conclusion was supported by a 2005 appellate decision and the Second Restatement of Torts, specifically noting that being preoccupied with one’s own thoughts is not a valid distraction to qualify as an exception. Examples when the distraction exception applies, as discussed by the Court are: using the only exit brought the invitee into contact with a dangerous condition; the invitee was given a task that directed her into the area with the dangerous condition; and the invitee was looking up in order to avoid falling debris while traversing the dangerous condition. These are very limited circumstances, indeed.
After that conclusion the Court considered the second two factors. The Court assumed that the burden was not great on Centralia to remedy sidewalk defects or otherwise protect pedestrians. Great weight was placed on the consequence factor, finding that the imposition of this burden would extend to the entirety of Centralia’s sidewalks. A consequence that is just not justified by the nature of this open and obvious defect. In other words, while Centralia could easily maintain and protect the city’s sidewalks, it does not give grounds to the Court to hold them liable for every instance of idle minded pedestrians falling on their defective sidewalks because it would be easier or more efficient for the pedestrian to just avoid the loss.
Remember, each case is unique. Your slip and fall is not necessarily exactly like someone else’s – and neither are your distractions. This area of the law is very sensitive to facts, so speak with an experienced attorney who can help you determine if you have a legal claim for injuries.