Recent Louisiana Supreme Court Ruling Regarding Premises Liability and Open and Obvious Conditions
The Louisiana Supreme Court recently clarified its Broussard v. State ex rel. Office of State Bldgs., 2012-1238 (La. 4/5/13); 113 So.3d 175 decision and the line of jurisprudence following it, particularly in the First Circuit, which held that a determination of whether a condition presents an unreasonable risk of harm, including whether the condition is open and obvious, is not appropriate for summary judgment. Essentially, courts interpreted Broussard to stand for the proposition that the determination of whether a condition is open and obvious is not a question of whether a duty is owed, but rather a question of whether a duty was breached, which is a question of fact for the fact-finder (a jury or the judge in a bench trial). Thus, these courts ruled that the open and obvious determination was not appropriate for summary judgment.
In Bufkin v. Felipe’s, 2014-0288 (La. 10/15/14), 2014 WL 5394087, the Louisiana Supreme Court clarified its position in Broussard and expressly held that: “We note that our opinion in Broussard. . . should not be construed as precluding summary judgment when no legal duty is owed because the condition encountered is obvious and apparent to all and not unreasonably dangerous.” Basically, the Court held that when a condition is open and obvious to all people, the question of whether a duty is owed is appropriate for summary judgment.
In Bufkin, the plaintiff was injured when a bicyclist ran into him while he was crossing a street in New Orleans. The plaintiff contended that a large construction dumpster obstructed his vision of traffic to his right; thus, it created an unreasonably dangerous condition. The defendant contractor filed a Motion for Summary Judgment alleging that the dumpster was open, obvious and apparent and not unreasonably dangerous, thus there was no duty to warn of the visible obstruction. The Court analyzed plaintiff’s claims under negligence and premises liability theories and determined that the threshold issue in either theory is whether a duty is owed, which is a question of law.
The Court analyzed the risk-utility balancing test to determine whether the dumpster created an unreasonably dangerous condition:
(1) The utility of the complained-of condition;
(2) The likelihood and magnitude of harm, including the obviousness and apparentness of the condition;
(3) The cost of preventing the harm; and
(4) The nature of the plaintiff’s activities in terms of social utility or whether the activities were dangerous by nature.
The Court held that the evidence presented on summary judgment established that any vision obstruction caused by the dumpster to a pedestrian crossing at that location was obvious, apparent and reasonably safe for persons exercising ordinary care and prudence. Thus, the defendant had no duty to warn of the obstruction presented to pedestrians by its dumpster, a large object visible to all. Because the plaintiff could not produce any evidence to support an element of his claim (that defendant owed him a duty) or to dispute the defendant’s properly supported Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court held that summary judgment was appropriate.
The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed its position in Bufkin a month later in Rodriguez v. Dolgencorp, L.L.C., 2014-1725 (La. 11/14/14); 2014 WL 6088837, when, citing to its decision in Bufkin, it again granted a summary judgment in favor of a defendant based upon the determination that shopping carts in a parking lot are an open and obvious condition that the plaintiff could have avoided if she were using ordinary care.