May 22, 2017

Generally, a property owner is responsible for injuries to people that result from dangers on the property.  However, there are many defenses the property owner can potentially use, and one of them is that the danger was so obvious that no one should have been injured (the obvious danger doctrine).

In Trainor v. PNC Bank, a person was injured on the property of a PNC bank.  Ms. Trainor went to the bank’s outdoor ATM and saw that the area was under construction.  Ms. Trainor testified that she saw a sign with an arrow to walk around a barricade, and that when she walked around the barricade, she stepped in a pothole and sustained injury.

Ms. Trainor stated that though she did not see the pothole prior to stepping in it, there was nothing hiding the pothole, and that if she had looked down she would have easily seen it.  Ms. Trainor sued the bank, the general contractor doing the construction, and a subcontractor who was actually doing the construction work.  The lawsuit sued was based on (1) the bank and the contractors failed to warn of the danger, and (2) the bank and the contractors failed to properly maintain the premises in a safe condition. 

The bank and contractors filed a motion to dismiss, based on the obvious danger theory.  The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the lawsuit.

Ms. Trainor appealed, and the appellate court reversed the trial court and concluded that the obvious danger doctrine was not sufficient to dismiss the case.  The appellate court first noted that in premises liability cases, the first step is to identify the duty the property owner has to the injured person.  In this case, the court determined that Ms. Trainor was an invitee, and so the bank owed her a duty “to use ordinary care in keeping the premises in a reasonably safe condition” and to warn of any hidden dangers.  Further, the court noted that it is not only the property owner, but also anyone in control of the property, who owes this duty, such as a contractor. 

Moving on to analysis of the obvious danger doctrine, the appellate court defined the doctrine as one that “recognizes that owners and occupiers should be legally permitted to assume that the invitee will perceive that which would be obvious to them upon the ordinary use of their own senses.”  In other words, the property owner can assume that a person on the property will see any obvious dangers on the property.  However, the court noted that this does not remove the duty to the invitee.  Instead, the obvious danger doctrine only eliminates the duty to warn about obvious dangers on the property.  Accordingly, the duty to maintain the premises in a safe condition is still upon the property owner.

So, the appellate court reversed the dismissal and sent the case back to the trial court for the case to continue.

Premises liability cases are often extremely complex and can involve complicated matters of both fact and law.  If you or a loved one has suffered injury due to a danger on the property of another, please contact an experienced personal injury attorney to discuss your options.