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Upcoming Illinois Supreme Court Decision May Affect Premises Liability Cases

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If you have been injured by a hazard on someone else's property in Illinois, an upcoming Illinois Supreme Court decision may have a major impact on your potential premises liability case. Property owners owe certain duties to safeguard visitors. These duties involve a complex set of rules that are at the focus of a recent injury case involving a defective sidewalk.

Ms. Bruns was an 80-year-old patient of the Centralia Eye Clinic in Centralia, Illinois. In March 2012, Ms. Bruns was injured when she tripped on a cracked sidewalk while walking into the eye clinic. Ms. Bruns had negotiated this hazard in the past, but on this day her attention was focused on the clinic entrance and steps rather than the cracked sidewalk. The roots of a historic tree had broken the sidewalk, causing it to heave three inches. This hazard was previously reported, and the City of Centralia refused to allow the eye clinic to cut down the historically significant tree. Since the City of Centralia was on notice about the sidewalk problem, Ms. Bruns sued the city for damages.

Property owners are generally required to fix a property hazard that might harm visitors. However, a rule called the open and obvious doctrine says that a property owner is not liable for injuries caused by an open and obvious hazard. The reason behind this doctrine is simple. If a visitor walks right into an open and obvious hazard, that visitor is negligent, and the property owner should not be responsible for the visitor's negligence.

This doctrine is designed to cut lawsuits short and avoid costly litigation over obvious hazards that should have simply been avoided. There are narrow exceptions to this doctrine, one of which is the distraction exception. This exception says that if it is reasonably foreseeable that a visitor may be distracted while approaching a hazard, the property owner still has a duty to address the hazard.

Both the city and Ms. Bruns agreed that the hazard was open and obvious. The city filed a motion for summary judgment, stating that the open and obvious doctrine applied, so the city could not be sued. The court agreed with the city and dismissed the case before a jury could render a decision.

Ms. Bruns then filed an appeal with the Illinois Appellate Court for the 5th District. The appellate court noted the distraction exception to the open and obvious doctrine. Although the hazard was open and obvious, Ms. Bruns may have reasonably been distracted as she approached the hazard. The appellate court stated several hypothetical reasons why a patron might be distracted and fail to see a hazard.

In its decision, the appellate court stated that the lower court should not have dismissed the case without allowing a jury to address the issue, adding that the circumstances of plaintiff’s conduct are matters within the purview of the jury, not the court. The appellate court reversed the lower court decision, remanding the case back to the lower court for a jury to decide. This reversal prompted the City of Centralia to file an appeal with the Illinois Supreme Court.

In its argument before the Illinois Supreme Court, the city noted that Ms. Bruns never provided a reason why she was looking at the steps and entranceway instead of the sidewalk, and that her own inattentiveness is not a viable excuse. The city claimed it was improper for the appellate court to bring up hypothetical reasons why a person might be distracted. The city asserted that this type of hypothetical thinking could generate so many reasons that the distraction exception would apply in every case. The city's attorney said if the distraction exception applies in every case, then you have no open and obvious doctrine.

The Illinois Supreme Court will soon render its verdict regarding this case. The decision may have a major impact on the open and obvious doctrine for years to come. This doctrine and its narrow exceptions involve technical nuances that require an intricate knowledge of the law.

If you've been hurt while on someone else’s property, you should consult a lawyer with experience in premises liability law, including the open and obvious doctrine and its exceptions. Personal injury claims call for assertive and skilled representation.

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