For All the World to See: Open and Obvious Conditions Preclude Liability

Eighty-two year old Mildred Watts was a regular patron at The Country Place Restaurant in Minden, Louisiana. She often entered the restaurant by walking on two circular stones in a flower bed positioned in between the parking lot and the restaurant entrance. On October 1, 2006, she became the first person to trip on a metal strip bordering the flower bed.  When she fell she sustained serious injuries to her mouth and teeth.

Ms. Watts filed suit against the restaurant and its insurer, Scottsdale Insurance Company, arguing that the metal strip posed an unreasonable risk of harm and that defendants were liable for her injuries. The trial and appellate courts disagreed and found that the condition was not unreasonably dangerous because it was open and obvious. The courts found that the restaurant did not owe a duty to Ms. Watts due to the open and obvious nature of the strip.

Both courts considered that the metal strip was about four inches tall and clearly visible to the naked eye. The restaurant manager testified that no one had tripped over or complained of the metal strip in the nine years that he worked there. The manager further stated that the stones in the flower bed were decorative, not stepping stones, and patrons were not encouraged to use it to enter the restaurant. Ms. Watts even admitted that she saw the strip on her previous visits to the restaurant, but never tripped over it. Importantly, on the day of her accident, nothing obstructed her vision of the strip.

Both courts disagreed with Ms. Watts’ argument that the sole purpose of the metal strip was to trip pedestrians and that it was difficult to see because it was a dark brown/green color among dirt and plants. Rather, the strip clearly bordered the flower bed, and the area was not a designated walkway for patrons.  The courts found that the metal strip was open and obvious and did not present an unreasonable risk of harm. Accordingly, the restaurant owed no legal duty to Ms. Watts and her claims were dismissed.

Nevertheless, Ms. Watts was not completely without a remedy. Ms. Watts recovered $5,000.00 policy limits, plus interest, from Scottsdale Insurance Company under a no-fault medical payments provision of its policy, for her medical expenses incurred as a result of her injuries.

Take-Away: A property owner does not have a duty to warn about or remove conditions that are open and obvious and, thus, do not pose an unreasonable risk of harm.

This article was co-authored by Laura Beth Graham, a 2010 summer associate at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore LLC.

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