Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Sidewalk Liability and the “Distraction Exception” to the Rule of Open and Obvious Danger

In the recent case of Bruns v. Centralia, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the City of Centralia did not owe a duty to a pedestrian injured from a fall on a city sidewalk.  At the heart of the decision was the application of the “distraction exception” to tort law regarding premise liability. Generally, a property owner is not liable for injuries caused by “open and obvious” hazards. The distraction exception provides a theory of liability despite an open and obvious hazard if, among other considerations, it was foreseeable that the person would be distracted and disregard or forget the hazard.

The plaintiff sustained injuries when she fell on an uneven sidewalk leading from the street to the sidewalk in front of the eye clinic she was visiting.  The condition of the sidewalk was caused by tree roots from a historically significant tree nearby. Interestingly, she was aware of the condition of the sidewalk from her nine prior visits to the eye clinic over the three months preceding her fall. The City of Centralia was also aware of the condition of the sidewalk from phone calls from the eye clinic’s employees concerning the condition of the sidewalk. The plaintiff asserted that, although the condition of the sidewalk was an open and obvious danger, she was distracted when she focused on the sidewalk and steps of the eye clinic, thus giving rise to the distraction exception to the open and obvious danger rule.

In the trial court, the City moved for summary judgment arguing that the condition of the sidewalk was an open and obvious danger and, as a result, the City did not owe the plaintiff a duty to repair the sidewalk or protect her from injury. The trial court agreed with the City and entered summary judgment against the plaintiff finding that the distraction exception to the open and obvious danger rule did not apply. On appeal, the appellate court held that the distraction exception applied and stated that it was foreseeable that someone in the plaintiff’s position would focus on the pathway to the door and steps of the eye clinic instead of the open and obvious danger created by the condition of the sidewalk. The City appealed the application of the distraction exception to the Illinois Supreme Court.

In order to determine whether a duty is owed on the part of a landowner, a court analyzes the following four factors: (1) the reasonable foreseeability of the injury, (2) the likelihood of the injury, (3) the magnitude of the burden of guarding against the injury, and (4) the consequences of placing that burden on the landowner.  In analyzing the first two factors, the Supreme Court discussed the open and obvious hazard rule.  Under this rule, “a party who owns or controls land is not required to foresee and protect against an injury if the potentially dangerous condition is open and obvious.”  Prior cases have held that sidewalk defects can constitute open and obvious dangers, but classification of a condition as open and obvious is fact-specific.

Like most rules though, the open and obvious danger rule also has exceptions. One exception is the “distraction exception.” The “distraction exception” applies where the landowner has reason to believe that the invitee will be distracted so as not to discover the obvious condition, forget the obvious condition, or fail to take appropriate measures to protect themselves from the condition. When an exception to the open and obvious danger rule applies, the reasonable foreseeability of the injury and likelihood and severity of the injury are greater, thus weighing in favor of imposing a duty on the landowner.

The Court noted that, while there is no precise definition of “distraction,” a review of case law addressing the application of the exception provides guidance on this issue. In these cases, a focus is on whether the conduct of the landowner contributed to the distraction versus the conduct of the injured party. The Court found the plaintiff’s conduct of looking at the steps and door to the eye clinic to be a self-imposed distraction insufficient to warrant the application of the exception. In declining to impose a duty on the City, the Court held that the imposition of a duty on the City would go beyond the sidewalk repair at issue given the miles of sidewalk that the City is responsible for maintaining. As a result, the open and obvious nature of the sidewalk defect did not warrant imposing a duty on the City to repair or protect the plaintiff from the condition of the sidewalk.

Despite the apparent favorable ruling for municipalities, as always, please keep in mind that the outcome in the Bruns case was fact-specific. Any number of different facts may have altered the outcome of the case and applied a duty on the municipality for injuries resulting from the defective sidewalk.


Kevin A. Chrzanowski

Author: Kevin A. Chrzanowski