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Are Property Owners Responsible for Injuries Sustained on their Land in Cases When the Injured Party Ignores a Dangerous Situation?

Property owners often invite guests onto their land. At times, these guests engage in dangerous conduct or disregard hazardous situations that arise. Unfortunately, this can result in serious injury. In the case of Lee v. Lee, the Illinois Appellate Court considers whether a property owner is responsible when guests are injured under these circumstances.

The Facts

On October 11, 2015, Kun Mook Lee and his pastor visited the home owned and occupied by Young Rok Lee, another member of the church congregation. Although Young Rok had specifically told them not to come to his house, they arrived with equipment to cut a tree limb.  

Upon seeing the limb, which was 20 to 25 feet off the ground, Kun Mook remarked that the situation was dangerous and the work should be performed by professionals. Even so, he and the pastor unloaded equipment and tied two ladders together with wire in order to reach the limb.

Young Rok had been mowing the backyard lawn when the men first arrived, and he discovered them in his front yard as they were preparing to remove the tree limb. He immediately told them to stop because the situation was dangerous. When the pastor and Kun Mook persisted, Young Rok stopped protesting and tied a rope around the limb to prevent it from damaging his roof when it fell.

The ladders were placed against the tree in such a way that they leaned on the problematic limb. Kun Mook—who wore dress shoes and carried a chainsaw—climbed them to a height of at least 20 feet. When he cut the limb on which the ladders balanced, he fell and sustained life-threatening injuries. Kun Mook filed a lawsuit against Young Rok alleging negligence (carelessness). Specifically, he claimed that Young Rok had failed to provide appropriate tools for the job, safe instruction, a safe work environment, and safety equipment. He also claimed that Young Rok had failed to properly supervise the work and secure the debris.

The Law of Open and Obvious Dangers, the Distraction Exception, and the Deliberate Encounter Exception

In Illinois, property owners are responsible for injuries only when they know (or should know) of dangerous conditions that are likely to cause harm, when they have reason to believe guests will not recognize the danger or will fail to protect themselves against it, and when they fail to exercise reasonable care to protect their guests. Furthermore, injured parties can only recover damages from property owners in a negligence case if they prove the owner had a duty to protect them from harm and their injuries resulted from the owner’s failure to uphold that duty. Whether property owners have a duty to protect their guests depends on four factors: the reasonable foreseeability of the injury, the likelihood of the injury, the extent to which preventing the injury is burdensome, and the consequences of imposing that burden on a property owner.

However, landowners have no duty to protect against injury when a potentially dangerous condition is “open and obvious”—in other words, when the average person would recognize a situation as dangerous. According to Illinois law, property owners are not liable for injuries that occur when a person engages in activity where a known and obvious danger exists.

That said, there are two exceptions to the “open and obvious” rule. The first is the “distraction exception.” This exception applies in situations when guests’ attention could waver in a way that stops them from discovering an otherwise open and obvious hazard, makes them forget about a hazard, or prevents them from protecting themselves against a hazard. The second is the “deliberate encounter” exception. This exception applies when the risks of ignoring an obviously dangerous situation are outweighed by the rewards of doing so. If either of these exceptions applies, landowners are responsible for protecting against their guests’ injuries and can be held responsible if they fail to do so.

The Decision

In response to the lawsuit against him, Young Rok raised the defense of contributory negligence—in other words, he alleged that Kun Mook was partially responsible for his injuries. Furthermore, Young Rok said that he was not liable due to the open-and-obvious rule. Young Rok then asked the trial court to grant a summary judgment, arguing that all the evidence produced by Kun Mook was insufficient for a jury to find in his favor. The court agreed and dismissed the case.

Kun Mook appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, arguing that the open-and-obvious rule applies only in cases of premises liability and not in an ordinary negligence suit such as the one he brought against Young Rok. KunMook cited four cases to support his claim.

The appellate court disagreed, stating that the open-and-obvious rule applies in general negligence cases as well as in cases of premises liability. To support its position, the court cited several examples from both the Illinois Supreme Court and the Illinois Appellate Court in which the open-and-obvious rule was used in cases involving ordinary negligence. The appellate court also said that regardless of whether Kun Mook’s lawsuit was categorized as a negligence complaint or a premises liability complaint, Young Rok was entitled to use the open-and-obvious rule as part of his defense.

The appellate court acknowledged that as a property owner, Young Rok had a duty to protect Kun Mook from hazardous conditions on his property—but the court also noted that Young Rok did not have a duty to protect his guest from open and obvious dangers. The court stated that the dangers associated with climbing 20 or more feet into the air on ladders that had been tied together—especially while wearing dress shoes, carrying a chainsaw, and balancing the ladders against the limb to be removed—presented a clear danger. Therefore the open-and-obvious rule applied in this situation and Young Rok had no duty to protect Kun Mook.

The court then considered whether the distraction exception and the deliberate encounter exception were relevant to the case and found that neither was applicable. There was no evidence that Kun Mook had been distracted from the fact that he was climbing two ladders with a chainsaw in hand; neither was there any evidence to suggest that the advantages of removing the tree limb outweighed the potential dangerous outcomes associated with the task. Because the exceptions to the open-and-obvious rule did not apply, the court again found that Young Rok had no duty to protect his guest.

In addition, the court discussed whether Kun Mook’s injuries were foreseeable (one of the four conditions that is considered when determining whether the property owner has a duty to protect guests from hazards). The court concluded that because the circumstances in this case were “freakish, bizarre, and fantastic,” Young Rok could not have reasonably anticipated the scenario or the resulting injuries. Therefore, he had no duty to protect Kun Mook from injury in this particular instance.

Finally, the court noted that even if Young Rok did have a duty to protect his guest (which he did not), Kun Mook wouldn’t have been entitled to recover damages in the case because of his own role in causing the injury. The court determined that Kun Mook was more than 50% at fault, and Illinois law stipulates that injured parties are unable to recover damages in cases where they hold the majority of the responsibility. For all of these reasons, the appellate court determined that it the trial court had correctly granted summary judgment.

Conclusion

In most cases, property owners cannot be considered negligent—and thus are not responsible—when their guests suffer injuries as a result of ignoring open and obvious dangers. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. Property owners are liable for injuries when their guests are distracted and either forget about or fail to discover the danger. Additionally, owners are liable when guests become injured because the reward associated with disregarding the danger outweighs the risk.

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