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What should business owners know about the “open and obvious” hazard premise liability defense?

On Behalf of | Jun 12, 2024 | Premises Liability Defense

Imagine a typical day for a shopper entering a popular retail store. The fluorescent lights illuminate neatly arranged aisles, and the air hums with activity. The patron navigates the store with purpose, shopping list in hand. But as the shopper rounds a corner, their foot catches on a frayed carpet edge. The shopper stumbles, crashing into a display of glassware.

Shards scatter across the floor, and the shopper’s hand bears a deep cut.

The hazard in this scenario — a frayed and uneven carpet — was unmistakable, yet the injury occurred. How does the law address such situations? Welcome to the complex world of “open and obvious” hazards in premises liability claims.

What is an “open and obvious” hazard?

An “open and obvious” hazard refers to a dangerous or unsafe condition on a property that is readily noticeable or easily discoverable by a reasonable person. When such hazards exist, property owners or controllers may argue that they had no duty to warn visitors about them because the risks were apparent.

An unsafe condition poses an unreasonable risk of harm to individuals. Property owners generally owe a duty of care to maintain their premises free of unsafe or dangerous conditions. They must repair hazards, protect against harm, or provide adequate warnings if they knew or should have known about the condition.

If a hazard is so obvious that a person could reasonably be expected to notice it, the owner/controller need not warn others about it. This defense to a premise liability claim is a recharacterization of the former assumption of risk doctrine, treating it as contributory negligence.

Essentially, if the plaintiff saw or should have seen the hazard, fault lies with them for “assuming the risk.”

Are there exceptions to this rule?

Although this can serve as a defense strategy for premise liability claims, a word of caution. Like everything in the legal world, the application depends on the details of the case. Obviousness does not always fully absolve the defendant of all liability. While it often can negate the duty to warn, it does not necessarily negate the duty to remedy. As a result, owners must take reasonable steps to address the hazard even if it is open and obvious.

Although this is a deeply established legal precedent within Oklahoma, the law does evolve. As such, it is important to seek legal counsel to better ensure proper application of this defense strategy to your claim.