Open and Obvious Condition and Contributory Negligence Defenses Rule the Day
No good deed goes unpunished for the Plaintiff good samaritan in Draughon v. Evening Star Holiness Church of Dunn, 374 N.C. 479 (2020), especially with the NC Supreme Court’s June 5, 2020 decision granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.
In Draughon, Plaintiff was injured when he tripped while assisting funeral home staff in carrying a casket up the stairs of the church. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the church alleging negligence in failing to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition and failing to warn of dangerous and defective conditions. However, the Court found the condition of the top step was open and obvious, precluding a duty to warn, and Plaintiff was contributorily negligent for his injuries in that he kept his eyes on the doorway while walking sideways up the stairs. Specifically, the facts illustrated the top step was four inches taller than the other steps to the Church and made of “strikingly” different materials. Further, the Plaintiff had previously walked down the exact stairs “experiencing the difference in height of steps firsthand.” Id. at 487.
Similarly, in an unpublished opinion in Odom v. No. 8 Entertainment, LLC, NC COA No. COA20-169, the Defendants were granted summary judgment in another 2020 premises liability lawsuit citing the Draughon decision. In Odom, Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging injuries when she rolled her ankle when she stepped from a sidewalk onto the edge of a tire rut in Defendant’s parking lot. Id. Plaintiff had been to this property approximately ten to twenty times but had not previously parked in the same area where the incident occurred. Id. Plaintiff admitted to not looking at the pavement, and conceded that had she looked down, she would have noticed the tire rut because nothing obstructed her view. Id. When Plaintiff subsequently left the building at night, she took the same path and stepped on the edge of the rut and injured her foot. Defendants argued similar defenses to Draughon by alleging an open and obvious condition on the property and contributory negligence.
North Carolina’s standard for landowners in premises liability cases requires a duty of reasonable care not to expose lawful visitors to dangerous situations and to warn lawful visitors of any hidden dangers. Draughon at 483. To recover damages against a landowner, a plaintiff who is a lawful visitor must prove the landowner negligently caused the condition or failed to correct the condition after it knew or should have known of the condition’s existence. NC Courts find a condition on a property “open and obvious” if it would be detected by an “ordinarily intelligent person using his eyes in an ordinary manner.” Id. Additionally, if the condition is open and obvious then the visitor is deemed to have equal or superior knowledge to the owner and a warning is unnecessary. Id. The Court in Odomstated, “[o]pen and obvious conditions may include ‘[s]light depressions, unevenness and irregularities in outdoor walkways, sidewalks and streets’ because they ‘are so common that their presence is to be anticipated by prudent persons.’ Id. (internal citations omitted).
These 2020 NC case decisions keep NC’s contributory negligence defense alive and well and further illustrate the importance of defense fact finding and probing into a plaintiff’s observations and actions leading up to any alleged slip, trip and fall.