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.

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