In Fluence v. Marshall Bros. Lincoln-Mercury Inc., Larry Fluence, a worker who was part of a paving crew that was pouring asphalt pavement at the Marshall Brothers car dealership’s lot, fell into an open manhole and severely injured his back. Mr. Fluence sued the property owner, Marshall Brothers, and the subcontractor that installed the underground drainage system and left the manhole cover off, Labiche Plumbing Inc. (Labiche).
Both Marshall Brothers and Labiche moved for summary judgment on the grounds that (1) they did not breach a duty to Mr. Fluence and (2) the open manhole did not present an unreasonable risk of harm. It was undisputed that Mr. Fluence was part of a crew that was hired to pave around the new drainage system, including the manhole, and that he had inspected the property on the morning of the accident and was aware of the open manhole. Moreover, the manhole was clearly visible from 20 feet away. Given these facts, Marshall Brothers and Labiche argued that the manhole was open and obvious and did not present an unreasonably dangerous condition to Mr. Fluence. In response, Mr. Fluence contended that he forgot about the hole later in the day when he was walking backwards in the parking lot and “smoothing off” the asphalt. And, although he should bear some fault for his carelessness, fault should also be assigned to Marshall and Labiche. The trial court disagreed and granted summary judgment in favor of Marshal Brothers and Labiche.
On appeal, Mr. Fluence argued that Marshall Brothers breached a duty to protect him or to warn him of a known dangerous condition while he was on the property. He further argued that Labiche had a duty to warn him of the condition, replace the manhole cover, or place a barrier to prevent people from getting near the hole. The appellate court noted that although a landowner owes a duty to people entering its premises to discover unreasonably dangerous conditions and to either repair them or warn of their existence, there is no duty to warn of an open and obvious condition. Quoting Louisiana case law, the court stated that whether a condition is unreasonably dangerous is determined by considering: “(1) the utility of the complained-of condition; (2) the likelihood and magnitude of the harm (which includes the obviousness and apparentness of the harm); and (3) the nature of the plaintiff’s activities in terms of its social utility or whether it is dangerous in nature.” Finding that Mr. Fluence admitted knowing of the open manhole prior to the accident and that his job entailed patching the holes up to and around the open manhole, the court held that Marshall Brothers and Labiche owed no duty to repair the condition or warn Mr. Fluence about the open and obvious condition. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling.
Take-Away: Property owners who hire workmen to perform work and repairs on their property may avoid liability for injuries suffered by the workmen if the injury results from an open and obvious condition, especially when the workmen acknowledge that they were aware of the condition before the accident occurred.