As a general principle of law, the owner of a property is typically not liable for failing to warn invited guests of hazards that are considered “open and obvious” to any “reasonable person.” In other words, if you see a giant puddle of water in the middle of a store aisle, choose to walk over it, and slip and fall, you may have a difficult time suing the store’s owner for failing to inform you of the danger. All the owner needs to do is point out the hazard–the puddle of water–was open and obvious to any reasonable person who was paying attention to their surroundings.
Carroll v. Carnival Corporation
But, if you will pardon the pun, it is not always obvious when a hazard is “open and obvious.” Judges and juries need to carefully weigh the available evidence in a given case. Even where the danger is ultimately found to be open and obvious, that does not always completely absolve the property owner of liability.
Take this recent decision from the Atlanta-based U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Carroll v. Carnival Corporation. This personal injury case involves a woman who was injured while on a cruise ship. A lower court dismissed the lawsuit outright, but the 11th Circuit said there was still a genuine dispute as to whether the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries were “open and obvious.”
Here is what happened: The plaintiff and her husband were on board the Carnival Pride. They were walking to a restaurant on the ship, which required them to travel along a curved walkway. There was a railing along the left side of the walkway, and lounge chairs along the right side. At a certain point, the distance between the chairs and the railing narrowed such that the plaintiff had to walk behind her husband single-file. As she did so, her “right foot clipped the leg of one of the lounge chairs, causing her to fall and suffer injuries.”
The plaintiff subsequently sued Carnival for negligence in federal court. As this injury happened on board a ship, federal maritime law applied to the case. A federal judge in Miami granted summary judgment to Carnival, holding the cruise line “had no duty to warn [the plaintiff] of the allegedly dangerous condition because it was open and obvious.”
The 11th Circuit, however, said the trial judge’s conclusions were premature. The appeals court noted the plaintiff testified that she was “forced to walk behind her husband” because of the narrowed walkway, and that “as a result, her view was blocked by her husband, who has a large profile, so she could not see the foot of the lounge chair that she tripped on nor around the curve of the walkway.” This testimony was not enough to create a “genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the danger associated with the walkway was open and obvious.”
Furthermore, even if the danger itself was open and obvious, that only disproved the plaintiff’s allegations that Carnival failed to warn her of a dangerous condition. The plaintiff also alleged Carnival was negligent in “maintaining” its premises. The 11th Circuit said a jury could find that Carnival’s configuration of the walkway “fell below industry standards” and was thus negligent. The appeals court therefore returned the case to the lower court for trial.