Impact of Supreme Court’s Recent “Open and Obvious” Ruling not Obvious

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently issued a ruling on the application of the “open and obvious” doctrine in slip and fall cases. The facts of Broussard v. State of Louisiana, 2012-1238 (La. 4/5/13), presented problems for both sides. A UPS driver tripped and fell over an offset between the floor and an elevator. The elevator in a State building had problems for years. One problem was that the elevator would not align properly between floors causing an offset between the floor and the elevator. However, the UPS driver delivered products to this particular State building daily and was well aware of the problem. At the time of the incident, he noticed that the elevator was not properly aligned but nevertheless attempted to pull a dolly with approximately 300 pounds of computer paper over the offset. The inertia created caused the plaintiff to lose control. Plaintiff sued the State, the owner of the building, for injury to his back.

To recover damages from an owner of a building for a slip and fall, a plaintiff must prove: 1) ownership of the building; 2) owner’s knowledge of the defect; 3) that damage could have been prevented by reasonable care; 4) that the owner failed to exercise reasonable care; 5) causation of damages; and 6) that the defect in the building created an unreasonable risk of harm. La. C.C. art. 2322; Entrevia v. Hood, 427 So. 2d 1146 (La. 1983). It was the “unreasonable risk of harm” element that was at issue before the Broussard Court.

Louisiana jurisprudence has created a risk-utility balancing test to determine if a defect in a building poses an unreasonable risk of harm. The risk-utility balance test consists of four factors: 1) the utility of the complained-of condition; (2) the likelihood and magnitude of harm, including the obviousness and apparentness of the condition; (3) the cost of preventing the harm; and (4) the nature of the plaintiff’s activities in terms of its social utility or whether it is dangerous by nature. Dauzet v. Curnest Guillot Logging, Inc., 08-0528 (La. 12/2/08), 995 So. 2d 1184.

In applying this balancing test, the jury found the State 62% liable and Plaintiff 38% liable for Plaintiff’s damage. The court of appeal reversed that decision. It found that, where the Plaintiff knew of the defect, the defect was “open and obvious” such that the State had no duty to protect against the condition.

The Louisiana Supreme Court disagreed. Under the specific facts of the case, the Court found that Plaintiff’s knowledge of the defect was insufficient to meet the open and obvious test. According to the Court, for a defect to be considered open and obvious it must be open and obvious to all. “Thus, in order to be open and obvious, the risk of harm should be apparent to all who encounter the dangerous condition.” Broussard, p. 17.

The Supreme Court reasoned that the open and obvious question is not based upon the plaintiff’s particular state of mind. Such an analysis is akin to assumption of the risk – a theory of law that was omitted when Louisiana enacted its comparative fault regime. Instead, the open and obvious to all standard is, according to Broussard, “sensible . . . and does not undermine the comparative fault regime by allowing a plaintiff’s negligence to operate as a bar to recovery in a case where the defendant’s conduct poses a risk of harm to the hypothetical blameless plaintiff.” Id. p. 18.

The true impact of the Broussard decision remains to be seen. Under one reading, the opinion’s impact should be limited to its specific facts. Under any interpretation, Broussard preserves the rule that an allegedly defective condition which is obvious to all will bar recovery to the plaintiff.