Open And Obvious Isn’t Enough: Anticipated Risk Doctrine Applied In Premises Liability Case.

A Minnesota appellate court recently applied the anticipated risk doctrine to find an issue of material fact precluded summary judgment even though the condition was open and obvious as a matter of law.  In Stock v. Garrison Y Club, Inc., A13-1562 (Minn. App. Mar. 17 2014) (unpublished), plaintiff was injured when she fell exiting a restroom on the premises of defendant’s restaurant.  The restaurant had several series of steps, many with warning signs.  Plaintiff stepped up a short step to enter the restroom.  Upon exiting, plaintiff did not look down and tripped and fell off the step.  Plaintiff testified she was aware of the step because she had to step up it to enter the bathroom, but forgot about it when she exited.  Prior to the date of plaintiff’s fall, there was a warning sign on the inside of the bathroom door, but the sign was missing when plaintiff fell.

The restaurant moved for summary judgment, arguing plaintiff’s claims were barred because the step was an open and obvious condition.  Plaintiff argued the open and obvious doctrine did not apply, and even if it did, the restaurant could have anticipated the harm.  The district court granted summary judgment and plaintiff appealed.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed.  It held that the step was an open and obvious condition as a matter of law because plaintiff stepped up the step before she fell stepping off it.  Curiously, however, the court found a fact issue existed as to whether the restaurant should have anticipated the harm, despite its obvious nature.  The court rejected the restaurant’s argument that several published cases held that steps are open and obvious as a matter of law.  Instead, the court relied on the fact there were other warning signs near steps in the restaurant and that there used to be a warning sign in the women’s restroom.  The court concluded this could lead a reasonable juror to conclude the restaurant appreciated the risk to patrons despite the obviousness of the danger posed by the step.  The court also made the curious finding “a reasonable jury could conclude that the restaurant could anticipate that a reasonable patron would encounter any risk posed by this step rather than forgo use of the restroom.”

This is significant for its potential limitation of the open and obvious doctrine at summary judgment.  This holding is contrary to the recent trend in Minnesota, which has favored summary judgment where the harm was open and obvious.  It also appears to be contrary to public policy: landowners now should have a warning sign for everything or nothing.  We will continue to monitor this and other decisions impacting premises liability.  If you have any questions about this, or any other legal issues, give us a call.