It seems intuitive that people have an obligation to avoid potentially harmful conditions that are open and obvious. Nevertheless, treatment of open and obvious conditions in Louisiana law has proved tricky because many cases did not apply a uniform analytical framework. In Farrell v. Circle K Stores, Inc. and the City of Pineville, the Louisiana Supreme Court recently offered needed guidance on the appropriate analysis for open and obvious conditions.
The plaintiff stopped at a gas station and decided to walk her dog in a nearby grassy area. To get to the grassy area, Farrell had to cross a pool of water that was “approximately the length of a tractor-trailer.” Farrell attempted to jump across the narrowest part of the pool, but slipped and fell. She sued for damages arising from her injuries. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the condition was open and obvious. The trial court and court of appeal denied the defendants’ motion. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court reviewed the matter and reversed.
In finding that the condition was open and obvious, the court began its analysis by outlining the elements that a plaintiff must establish to recover for damage arising from a defect under Louisiana Civil Code articles 2315, 2316, 2317 and 2317.1:
- That the defendant owed plaintiff a duty to conform its conduct to a specific standard;
- That the defendant breached the duty owed;
- That the defendant’s conduct was the cause-in-fact of the plaintiff’s injuries;
- That the defendant’s conduct was the legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries; and,
- That the plaintiff suffered damages.
The court also highlighted the requirement under La. R.S. 2317.1 that plaintiff show the defendant knew or should have known of the condition before the injury occurred.
The court noted that some courts had assessed whether a condition was open and obvious in the context of whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, while other courts had assessed whether a condition was open and obvious in the context of whether the defendant had breached the duty that was owed. In Farrell, the court found a duty was owed under the code articles referenced above. It clarified that whether a condition was open and obvious should be considered during analysis of whether the duty was breached, pursuant to Louisiana’s “risk/utility” test. This test requires consideration of whether the condition presented an unreasonable risk of harm, which considers whether the condition had any social utility; the likelihood and magnitude of harm the condition presented; the cost of preventing the harm; and the nature of the plaintiff’s conduct, including whether plaintiff’s conduct was socially useful or inherently dangerous.
Specifically, whether a condition is open and obvious should be considered in determining the likelihood of harm and magnitude of harm to an objectively reasonable person. The court further advised that the specific nature of the condition should be considered, such as its location and size. In contrast, a plaintiff’s particular and subjective knowledge of the condition is not relevant in determining whether defendant has breached a duty.
The Farrell court applied this analysis to the facts. It found that the pool served no useful purpose. No evidence existed regarding the cost to eliminate the risk. With respect to Farrell’s conduct, the court found that walking a dog was not dangerous by nature and may have an important social function, but this did not weigh heavily in the analysis. However, with respect to whether the condition as open and obvious, the court considered the location of the pool at the edge of the parking lot, the size of the pool, and the fact that it was apparent to all who encountered it. Thus, the condition was open and obvious, and the likelihood of and magnitude of the harm was minimal.
The court concluded that these factors collectively showed the condition was not unreasonably dangerous. The defendants did not breach their duty to plaintiff, and summary judgment should have issued for the defendants. In so holding, the Supreme Court provided clarifying guidance on analysis of open and obvious conditions under Louisiana law.
Farrell v. Circle K Stores, Inc. and the City of Pineville, 2022-000849 (La. 3/17/23), — So.3d —-, 2023 WL 2550503.