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The Open & Obvious Danger Doctrine


When the owner of commercial property makes his premises available to the public, he suggests to the public that his property is safe and void of hazard. If an invitee (legal terminology denoting a customer or guest on the premises) to a landowner’s property is injured in some way and the injury sustained is not the result of an open-and-obvious hazard, then the landowner, shop owner, restaurateur, salon operator, etc., is liable in negligence. If, on the other hand, the hazard is obvious, i.e., open and obvious, then there is no liability that accrues to the property owner.

Assume for a moment that you are going into the office of a motel and a sprinkler is getting the sidewalk to the entrance wet enough to create a slippery condition that could lead to a fall. You fall, and damage your hip. Your hip requires medical attention and the effects linger on for six months. Thinking the motel owner was negligent, you engage an attorney and bring a lawsuit.

Your case gets underway and after three or four months the motel owner’s lawyer brings a motion for summary judgment, claiming that there is no genuine issue of material fact because your claim is barred by the doctrine of Open-and-Obvious Danger, a danger you could have easily avoided by walking on the grass for a few feet. [Either plaintiff or defendant can file for Summary Judgment. Summary Judgment is a pre-trial motion claiming that there are no important facts in dispute, and therefore, no need to proceed to trial.] The trial-court judge agrees and grants summary judgment as a matter of law, and it’s all over, end of story!

Assume on the other hand, that you check into a motel at the end of winter. The accumulation of snow has been substantial, but it has warmed up considerably the last few days and winter is clearly on the ebb. You stay up late that night to watch some TV-special or other with the result that you sleep late the next morning and don’t issue forth until after ten or so. As you are stepping out from under the overhanging roof the next morning, BAM! You get hit in the head by what seems like a ton of snow and ice that fell from the roof.

Well, what a headache! But the headache doesn’t go away. It persists for days. Finally, you go to the E.R. at your local hospital and, sure enough, you’ve sustained a cervical fracture. Things seem to go from bad to worse and you wind up with migraines and a lot of serious physical discomfort punctuated by a hefty medical bill. You get in touch with a lawyer who lives in the community you were visiting when the accident occurred, and he brings a suit in negligence against the motel owner on your behalf. Three or four months into the proceedings, the motel’s lawyer files a motion for summary judgment, citing the doctrine of open-and-obvious danger. In this situation the trial court denies the grant of summary judgment on the ground that your injury was not the result of an open-and- obvious danger and that, therefore, your case will proceed to trial. At trial, the jury agrees that the situation resulting in your injury was not an open-and obvious danger, and they award you meaningful damages.







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