Lawsuit “Tripped Up” by Open and Obvious Defense

Louisiana premises liability law continues to evolve in the wake of the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision in Broussard v. State, 113 So.3d 175 (La. 2013). The Broussard decision was believed to limit the application of the open and obvious defense in the context of a Motion for Summary Judgment on liability.

On February 18, 2014, the First Circuit Court of Appeals decided Gustafson v. Priority Electric, Inc., et al, 2013 CA 1096, 2014 WL 647704 (2/18/14) (not designated for publication), providing additional insight as to how Broussard will affect the applicability of the open and obvious defense. Based on Gustafson, the open and obvious defense may still be alive in the context of a Motion for Summary Judgment.

While the Gustafson’s home was under construction, Ms. Gustafson entered the home unescorted. She stood facing a newly repainted wall and took several steps backward to broaden her perspective of the wall. As she walked backwards, she tripped on one of two unfinished PVC conduit “stub-outs” containing electrical wire that would ultimately service floor-mounted outlets in an adjoining den. The lawsuit ensued.

Priority Electric filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on the grounds that the stub-out presented an open and obvious condition that was readily discoverable had plaintiff exercised reasonable care. The company further argued that it had no duty to warn. The Trial Court agreed that the stub-out was an open and obvious condition and granted the motion.

The Appellate Court conducted a de novo. The defendants argued, and the Trial Court agreed, that “if a defect is obvious and apparent, then there is no correlative duty to warn of its existence.” Citing Broussard, the Appellate Court found that statement to be a misstatement of the law, noting that Broussard’s analytic framework for evaluating an unreasonable risk of harm is classified as a determination of whether a defendant breached a duty owed, rather than a determination of whether a duty is owed ab initio.

In light of Broussard, the Trial Court’s reasoning underlying the grant of summary judgment was flawed. Nevertheless, the Appellate Court found a basis to support the Trial Court’s dismissal of the claims utilizing a “risk-utility” analysis considering multiple factors.

1. Utility of the Stub-Outs

The necessity and utility of the stub-outs was not disputed.

2. Likelihood and Magnitude of Harm

The decision turned on this element. The utility of the stub-outs must be weighed against the likelihood and magnitude of harm presented by their defective condition, including whether the defect was open and obvious. The plaintiffs did not make a showing that any of the numerous contractors, subcontractors or visitors to the premises ever tripped. They also failed to offer expert testimony to show that the stub-outs presented an unreasonable risk of harm. Instead, they relied solely on the testimony of Ms. Gustafson, who admitted she was walking backwards and not paying attention. Unlike in Broussard, there was no evidence that the stub-outs were not “open and obvious to all who encountered them…”

3. Cost of Preventing the Harm

No expert testimony was presented to show that the use of PVC stub-outs was unconventional in a new home or that there were reasonable alternatives to their use. No evidence was presented to show how the stub-outs could have been better placed or made more visible.  Although plaintiffs argued that warning cones should have been in place, no evidence was presented to show that the contrast of the blue pipes on the gray cement was insufficient to alert an unsuspecting person.

4. Nature of Plaintiff’s Activity

Plaintiff was walking backwards when she fell. She acted unreasonably. The home was under construction and could have encountered a number of hazards. She failed to offer countervailing evidence on this issue.

Upon balancing all of the factors above, all evidence showed that the accident would not have occurred “but for” Ms. Gustafson’s own inattention and negligence.

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