Court Mulls Open and Obvious Defect in Shreveport Trip and Fall Case

According to Louisiana law, a landowner “owes a duty to a plaintiff to discover any unreasonably dangerous condition, and either to correct the condition or warn of its existence.” However, the courts have consistently held that landowners generally have no duty to protect against “open and obvious” hazards. If the facts show that the condition that caused a plaintiff’s injury should be “obvious to all,” the condition is less likely to be considered unreasonably dangerous; in such a situation, the landowner may owe no duty at all to the injured plaintiff. The determination of whether a crack in a Shreveport sidewalk was unreasonably dangerous was at the center of the recent case of Williams v. Rubens Residential Properties, LLC.

On the morning of May 4, 2006, Marion Williams was walking with her friend on Line Avenue in the Cedar Grove neighborhood. Williams tripped on a buckle in the concrete sidewalk, fall forward, and shattered her right wrist. After seeking immediate medical attention, Williams returned to the scene and took several photographs of the buckle. Over the next several months, she required several significant surgeries which left her with pins in her wrist and lingering pain which is expected to get worse over time.

Williams sued the City of Shreveport, which filed a motion for summary judgment in which it argued that it was obligated to provide a sidewalk in reasonably safe, but not perfect, condition and that it was not liable for the “open and obvious hazard which should have been observed by anyone in the exercise of reasonable care.” The City relied on the deposition testimony of its Superintendent of Streets and Drainage, Ernie Negrete, who explained that the City does not perform routine inspections of all its sidewalks because doing so would be too costly. Instead, the City takes corrective action based on the roughly 6,000 calls it receives from citizens each year to report problems. The City had no record of any calls about the particular location where Williams fell. Williams’s cross-motion urged that the sidewalk posed an “unreasonable risk of harm” of which the City did have notice, given that the buckle apparently had existed for over 15 years. The trial court denied the City’s motion and the matter went to a bench trial in February, 2010. The trial judge found Williams’s testimony and the testimony of her friend and husband “extremely credible” and accepted her assertion that she simply could not see the buckle in the sidewalk. The court awarded Williams almost $340,000 in damages including lost wages and medical expenses. In its appeal, the City argued that the trial court committed manifest error in failing to find that the defect in the sidewalk was open and obvious. The Second Circuit noted that the trial court’s decision was based on the testimony of three witnesses who claimed that from the pedestrian’s vantage point, the buckle was not apparent. Also, the City did not put on any evidence as to the height of the buckle or whether it was obvious to a pedestrian. Thus, the court concluded that the trial judge “was entitled to find that the condition was not open and obvious to a person walking straight down the sidewalk in the exercise of reasonable care.” Finding no manifest error, the court affirmed the trialc court’s judgment for Williams.

Although Williams was successful in her claim against the City, one wonders if the outcome would have been different if the City had put on any evidence to refute her assertion that the buckle could not be seen by pedestrians on the sidewalk. Given that the City’s liability turned on the very issue of whether the defect was open and obvious, it seems possible that the trial court could have sided with the City if it had offered some evidence on the question.

If you have been injured due to an unsafe condition on someone’s property, call the Berniard Law Firm and speak with an attorney who can help you get the recovery you deserve.