October 6, 2017

A Hazardous Step Is A Condition On The Land; Walters v. JS Aviation, Inc.

Category: Indiana Law Review | Author: | Share:

The foreseeability analysis the Indiana Supreme Court used in Rogers and Goodwin does not apply in premises liability cases when an injury is caused by a condition on the land. This case shows the method of analysis in those kinds of cases.

Walters was married, and her husband attended flight school at JS Aviation. One morning, Walters, her husband, and their grandson arrived early at JS Aviation for an open house. They entered through the pilot’s lounge, and on the other side of the lounge was the entrance to the hangar.

The hangar entrance was normally kept closed, which concealed a step down into the hangar. When the doors were open, JS Aviation staff customarily placed chairs in front of the doors with warning signs. As Walters arrived early, the chairs were not yet in place.

Walters followed her grandson into the hangar, but did not notice the step or any of the posted warning signs. As she passed through the doorway, Walters missed the step and fell, injuring herself.

Walters sued JS Aviation, alleging premises liability. JS Aviation moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted that motion. Walters appealed.

The Court of Appeals held that the question of whether JS Aviation owed Walters a duty was controlled by § 343 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. § 343 requires (1) an unreasonable risk of harm that (2) invitees should not be expected to protect themselves against and (3) the landowner did not take reasonable steps to protect against the danger. The Court held that there was a question of fact in this case on the first two factors: the step down was in an unlikely spot and the lighting made it difficult to see. The real question was whether the posted warning signs were reasonable steps to protect an invitee from the danger.

The record establishes that warning signs were attached to the ground next to the hangar side of the threshold and on the open door. Both warned: “!!!CAUTION!!! WATCH YOUR STEP”. Had the doors been closed, as they usually were, it is likely Walters would have observed the eye-level warning sign on the door. With the doors opened into the lounge, however, the sign on the door was off to the side and not as obvious to someone walking from the lounge to the brightly-lit hangar. This is likely why JS Aviation usually chose to put chairs with additional signage in front of the open doors during events.

Viewing the facts and inferences most favorable to Walters, we find them adequate to present triable issues of fact as to whether JS Aviation breached its duty of reasonable care and was a contributing cause to Walters’s injuries. Thus, the trial court erred in granting summary judgment.

Lesson:

If a landowner knows of a hidden, unreasonably hazardous condition, then putting out sign warning of the condition is not enough if the signs are not obvious to an invitee.