Massachusetts Appeals Court Defines Victim Rights in Premises Liability Accident, Fall at Home in Sunken Living Room

The Massachusetts Appeals Court has made it clear in a premises liability case that the “open and obvious” defense does not apply to a person falling into a sunken living room. The Suffolk County case arose from an accident at a residence. The plaintiff did not notice that there was a single step from the hallway into the sunken living room. She fell and broke her hip and required surgery and rehabilitation. She claimed that she did not see the step because the floor in the hall and the floor in the living room were both the same, light-colored tile, and the light from the windows and skylight obscured the step.

It is well known that single steps with no warnings, or with no changes in color from level to level, are a common cause of premises liability accidents. Even a cautious person can easily miss a single, but dangerous, step; you just don’t expect a drop from one room to another, and you instinctively rely on visual clues to warn you of dangerous steps.

Back to the case: The defendants argued that the construction of the house, and the condition of the step down to the sunken living room, was open and obvious. They also argued that, as a matter of law, they should receive summary judgment (which means judgment as a matter of law). They were able to persuade the trial judge to grant them summary judgment. But the plaintiffs appealed, and the Appeals Court reversed the trial judge and agreed that the plaintiffs were entitled to receive a jury trial.

The Court visited some familiar principles of premises liability law. Homeowners are required to keep their premises reasonably safe, and they are required to warn of known dangers. They do not have to warn of open and obvious dangers. While the court did not explain in detail its reasoning regarding open and obvious dangers, the general principle that applies is that a homeowner can rely on a visitor exercising care for his own safety when the hazards are blatantly obvious.

The Appeals Court found that, under the fact which were presented, there was sufficient evidence to submit the case to a jury. It was foreseeable that the use of the same colored tile for the hall and the living room, together with the lighting, could pose an unreasonable danger to visitors. The Court also concluded that a jury could find that the defendants knew or reasonably should have know of this hazard, and would therefore have a duty to warn of it. Another question, the Court suggested, is whether the defendants should have remedied the situation to prevent the dangerous condition.

The open and obvious defense has its origins in the most obvious dangers in the world. You do not need a warning that a knife is sharp, or that swinging on a rope swing over a rock-strewn river is dangerous. But the open and obvious defense does not apply to every danger that you might spot if you happen to be looking closely. Put yourself in the plaintiff’s shoes: she was coming into a house she is not familiar with, being greeted into the home. She was distracted by the conversation and was not looking for steps, and the even coloring failed to reveal any hazard. If you were to stop to look at the step, surely it would be obvious. But is is equally obvious that people coming across such hazards will usually be facing other distractions, and therefore must reasonably rely on others to eliminate these dangers or to warn of them.

The case has been sent back to the trail court for trial The good news for plaintiffs is that the courts now clearly recognize that a fall on a single step, a design feature in many Massachusetts homes and businesses, can be the basis for a case if the property owner fails to warn of or repair the defect.

The case is Quinn v. Morganelli, 73 Mass. App. Ct. 50 (2008). For another recent case on open and obvious dangers, see Greenslade v. Mohawk Power, Inc., 59 Mass. App. Ct. 850 (2003).

At the personal injury law firm of Breakstone, White & Gluck, P.C., we are aggressive advocates in the handling of premises liability cases, and we have handled cases similar to this one, where falls on steps lacking visual cues caused serious injuries. Please call us if you need assistance in a personal injury case arising from a fall.