Property owners owe certain duties to people who use their property with their permission. In Farrell v. Farrell the Third District Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether a landowner should be responsible for an accident allegedly cased, at least in part, by mature corn blocking the visibility of children riding dirt bikes and ATVs on the property.
In Farrell 12-year-old Austen Farrell was riding a dirt bike on his paternal grandmother’s farm. Like many farms, the property had buildings, vacant land, paths and cornfields. Austen and other children used the paths for riding dirt bikes and ATVs when they visited.
This particular visit was in August, so the corn was fully mature. The mature corn blocked Austen’s visibility and resulted in him hitting another child that was driving an ATV. Austen was injured and his mother brought a lawsuit against her former mother-in-law for negligence.
Initially, this case is interesting because we have family members suing each other. To most non-lawyers this would seem odd, though the fact that Austen’s parents are divorced provides a possible explanation. That said, it is equally likely that a lawsuit was filed to recover compensation from grandma’s insurance (not take money from grandma herself). Often insurance companies will not provide compensation without a lawsuit – resulting in the distasteful scenario of close family members suing each other for accidents (sometimes children even suing parents).
The Law with Respect to Landowners and Minors
In Illinois, the landowner has a duty not to be negligent. This means that they need to use the same level of care that a reasonable person would use to fix a dangerous condition or otherwise protect children from the dangerous condition when:
- The landowner knew or should have known that children habitually frequent the property;
- A dangerous condition is present;
- The dangerous condition will likely injury children because they will not appreciate the danger; and
- The cost and inconvenience of remedying the condition is slight when compared to the risk of injury to children.
Moreover, the courts have also ruled that when a danger is open and obvious to a child, the landowner will not be at fault since the condition itself gives warning and therefore the risk of injury is slight.
Though a landowner is generally protected from liability for open and obvious dangers, there are two exceptions. The landowner can be responsible for an injury to a minor from an open and obvious danger where:
- The landowner should be aware that the child will become distracted and not discover the obvious danger, or fail to protect themselves against it; or
- The he landowner should expect the child to encounter the danger because the perceived advantages outweigh the risk.
The Court’s Decision
Though ideally the court would apply the law, address the exceptions, compare similar cases and then reach a decision. In this case the court valued brevity.
The court found that a 12 year-old would have been aware that operating a dirt bike on a path through tall corn was an obvious danger and that the landowner had no duty to protect Austen from this danger. The court ruled that none of the exceptions applied here, but did not give detail why a child would not be distracted by the excitement of riding a dirt bike or discount the dangers because riding a dirt bike is a lot of fun.
The court could have ruled differently based on either exception. Additionally, grandma could have faced a claim that the negligent act was allowing the minors to drive the vehicles (rather than allow the corn to be tall). However, the facts did not make clear whether it was grandma who allowed the minors to ride the vehicles and there were some allegations that either the minor’s father permitted it or that both parents did not object.