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What is the open and obvious doctrine in premises liability claims?

Broadly, when a party owns, controls, occupies or has responsibility for the safety of land, a building, a business enterprise or other premises, whether private or commercial, that person or company has the legal responsibility to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe manner so that people who visit are not at risk of injury.

This includes a duty to affirmatively warn of danger if a condition is hidden, latent or otherwise not obvious.

What is premises liability?

When the duty to maintain reasonably secure and safe premises is breached and someone is thereby harmed, the legal claim that results is called a premises liability case – a kind of negligence. Common premises liability claims may involve:

  • Uneven surfaces
  • Poorly maintained stairways or railings
  • Slippery floors
  • Outside walkways or parking lots untreated for ice or snow
  • Negligent security against crime
  • Insufficient lighting
  • Dog bites
  • Swimming pools
  • Potholes
  • Slipping or tripping and falling on uneven or slippery floors, sidewalks or other surfaces or on unexpected debris

When a potential danger is “open and obvious,” the owner or other responsible party’s responsibility to correct it or warn of danger is lessened because it can be reasonably expected that a visitor would avoid the unhidden, obvious danger.

A recent example

On Dec. 20, 2019, the Court of Appeals of Ohio, Sixth District, Ottawa County, released its opinion in Denise Kohler v. Camp Runinmuck, a case in which a restaurant patron hit her shin on the corner of a recycling cart in the darkened parking lot, causing her to fall and sustain severe elbow injuries. The court upheld the lower court’s decision that the protruding cart was an open and obvious danger that negated any duty of care on the part of the restaurant.

While the customer argued that the cart’s color that blended in with the pavement and that a light that shone in her eyes prevented the cart from being an open and obvious hazard, the court disagreed, noting in support of finding an open-and-obvious danger:

  • The cart was not hidden.
  • The cart was relatively large at five-by-four feet.
  • Red trim created contrast with the gray concrete.
  • Dim lighting made the cart observable.

An “attendant circumstance” is an uncontrollable condition that contributes to a premises liability injury and negates the openness and obviousness of a danger. Examples include environmental conditions, time and place. The court said that the outdoor lighting plaintiff said was shining into her eyes was not an attendant circumstance because she could still see a bin on top of the cart, and she was not distracted.

Premises liability claims are highly individual and factually specific. Anyone in Ohio who sustained injury on the property of another should speak with an experienced personal injury attorney to understand potential legal remedies.

The attorneys at Colley Shroyer Abraham in Columbus represent clients in premises liability claims throughout the state of Ohio.