Bruns v. City of Centralia – Distraction in Premises Liability

Typically the topic of “distraction” in injury law is most closely associated with motor vehicle accidents. And of course, it’s relevant in that context, as distraction behind the wheel is extremely dangerous. But it’s worthy of discussion in other areas of personal injury law as well, including premises liability.

The “distraction doctrine” holds that if the property owner had reason to suspect an individual on site may not have appreciated a danger – even an open and obvious one – due to distraction or preoccupation – he or she would still have had a duty to correct or warn.

In the recent Illinois Supreme Court case of Bruns v. City of Centralia, plaintiff asserted the distraction doctrine as an exception to the open and obvious danger of a large, hazardous crack in a sidewalk in front of an eye clinic on which the elderly plaintiff tripped and fell. Plaintiff argued the city should have reasonably foreseen a pedestrian would become distracted while walking up to the clinic, and the appellate court agreed. However, the state supreme court reversed on the grounds that the simple act of looking up does not impose on defendant a duty to protect a plaintiff from an open and obvious defect.

The Bruns case shows the distraction doctrine may be an uphill battle to assert. Our experienced Montgomery premises liability attorneys can help determine the best legal strategy for those weighing a claim of action against a property owner. It’s worth noting that just because a person is injured on business or public property does not necessarily mean a premises liability claim will be forthcoming. There are a number of legal burdens the plaintiff must first clear.

In public or business settings, plaintiffs have to show the property owner failed to exercise reasonable care in maintaining the property or, in the alternative, failed to warn about the danger. However, this duty can be eliminated if it’s successfully asserted the danger was “open and obvious” the degree the plaintiff knew or should have known about it and failed to take reasonable measures to protect herself. The “distraction doctrine” is the exception here.

In Bruns, the plaintiff was just days from her 80th birthday when she drove to an eye clinic for a scheduled appointment. Rather than use the clinic parking lot, she parked on the street in front of the main entrance, as she had for several other visits during the previous three months.

As she walked toward the entrance, she stubbed her toe on a crack in the sidewalk. This caused her to lose her balance and fall, injuring her knee, leg and arm. At the time, she had been looking “toward the door and steps” of the clinic.”

There was no question the defect in the sidewalk was noticeable, she would later say. She had noted it numerous times previously. It was large, and had developed over a number of years due to roots from a nearby tree that was more than 100 years-old.

Clinic employees had contacted the city about it, asking the city if they could remove the tree because of the effect on the sidewalk and the risk to patrons. However, the city had declined due to the age and historical significance of the tree. The city continued to refuse, even after learning someone had tripped and been hurt.

When plaintiff sued, the city asserted the open and obvious doctrine. She should have seen the sidewalk defect and taken reasonable measures to avoid the danger. She countered the city should have known she would be looking toward the clinic doors as she approached, and not down at every step she took.

The trial court granted summary judgment to defendant, ruling the mere existence of an entrance or steps leading to it is not a universal distraction exception to the open and obvious doctrine.

The appellate court reversed, finding the key question to be that of foreseeability of the likelihood that a person’s attention would be distracted from an open and obvious condition. The court found it reasonably foreseeable that an elderly patron of an eye clinic would have her attention focused toward the door and steps of the clinic, as opposed to the pathway underfoot.

Upon appeal, the state high court noted the plaintiff failed to identify any circumstance in which it was reasonably foreseeable to the city that she would have been required to divert her attention tot he open and obvious defect in the sidewalk or that would have otherwise prevented her from avoiding the sidewalk defect.

Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.

Additional Resources:
Bruns v. City of Centralia, Sept. 18, 2014, Illinois Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Ainsworth v. Chandler – Plaintiff Status in Premises Liability Claim, Sept. 18, 2014, Montgomery Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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