On December 2, 2011, Royce Bufkin Jr. was enjoying an afternoon stroll through the French Quarter when he encountered a construction barrier blocking the sidewalk and directing him to cross to the other side of the street. The construction barrier was for work being done on a building, and there was a large dumpster occupying several on-street parking spots immediately adjacent to the sidewalk barrier. As Bufkin prepared to cross the one-way street, he looked in the direction of oncoming traffic before beginning to cross the road. Unfortunately for Bufkin, a bicyclist delivering food for Felipe’s Taqueria Restaurant was traveling the wrong way down Conti Street at that same moment, and Bufkin was struck by the bicyclist and injured.
Bufkin subsequently filed suit against Felipe’s, its insurer, and Shamrock Construction, the company doing the construction on the building, as well as the building’s owner. As to Shamrock, Bufkin argued the company was liable because it created an unreasonable risk of harm to pedestrians by creating a “blind spot” that prevented pedestrians from seeing oncoming traffic when crossing the street. Bufkin argued that Shamrock’s sign directing pedestrians to cross the street should have also advised them that the dumpster created a blind spot, and specifically instructed pedestrians to cross at the corner. Bufkin also contended that Shamrock should have placed buffers around the dumpster to eliminate the blind spot. Shamrock sought summary dismissal of the lawsuit, arguing that it was not negligent and owed no duty to warn about the dumpster. The trial court denied the motion and the appellate court also denied Shamrock’s subsequent application for supervisory review of the denial. But the Louisiana Supreme Court granted Shamrock’s writ application for review in Bufkin v. Felipe’s Louisiana.
The Supreme Court framed the issue as “whether the sidewalk condition, created by Shamrock’s allegedly insufficiently posted warnings and the placement of the large curbside dumpster, produced a vision obstruction that was unreasonably dangerous, and if so, whether Shamrock owed a duty to place additional warnings on its signage and/or to construct a buffer zone that would mitigate against any vision obstruction created.” The Court then went on to note that generally, the burden for tort liability arising from a sidewalk defect lies with the municipality, unless an adjoining landowner negligently caused the defect. Nonetheless, the Court noted that a pedestrian still has a duty to see “that which should be seen and is bound to observe his course to see if his pathway is clear.” Ultimately, the Court evaluated whether Shamrock owed a duty to Bufkin under four factors:
- The utility of the complained-of condition;
- The likelihood and magnitude of the harm, including the obviousness and apparentness of the condition;
- The cost of preventing the harm; and
- The nature of the plaintiff’s activities in terms of social utility or whether the activities were dangerous by nature.
The Court quickly disposed of the first factor, utility, noting that “[c]onducting repairs and renovations to aging French Quarter buildings is not only desirable, but necessary.” The Court then moved on the second prong, noting that a defendant generally does not have a duty to protect against obvious and apparent dangers. In evaluating this prong, the Court considered evidence submitted by Shamrock, including photographs of the accident site about a week after the accident, Bufkin’s deposition, and an affidavit from Dale Johnson, Shamrock’s superintendent for the building project.
Mr. Johnson’s affidavit went into detail about the size of the 30-cubic-yard dumpster, the signage warning that the sidewalk was closed and warning pedestrians to cross the street, and the position of the dumpster. Johnson also noted that there was no pedestrian crossing delineated at the construction location. Meanwhile, Bufkin’s deposition revealed that he had lived in the French Quarter for thirty years. Bufkin also stated he followed pedestrian traffic crossing by the dumpster because “he thought crossing by the dumpster was a shortcut.” Bufkin did not dispute that he failed to look to his right (the opposite direction of oncoming traffic) before crossing the street. Bufkin also admitted that he had known of the dumpster’s presence for more than four months by the time of the accident, and as a French Quarter resident, he was aware that people would at times walk, jog, or bicycle the wrong way down one-way streets.
The Court began its analysis of the facts by acknowledging that Shamrock would have been liable for any unreasonably dangerous condition it created on the sidewalk, having assumed custody of the sidewalk by shutting it down during the construction. However, considering all of the above evidence and testimony, the Court found that any vision obstruction caused by a dumpster of the size at issue was obvious and apparent, and reasonably safe for persons exercising ordinary care and prudence. Accordingly, the Court concluded that Shamrock had no duty to warn of the obstruction presented to pedestrian by its “pick-up-truck-sized dumpster, a large inanimate object visible to all.” This lack of duty also negated the need for the Court to evaluate the remaining two factors of the test. Because Bufkin presented no evidence to refute this finding, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ decision and entered summary judgment in favor of Shamrock, dismissing the case against it.
Take-Away: Even where a defendant has control of a premises (such as Shamrock and the sidewalk in this case), it still has no duty to warn plaintiffs of obvious and apparent dangers.
This article was co-authored by Meera Sossamon, an associate at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore LLC.