Illinois Appellate Court Reverses Summary Judgment for Property Owner in Premises Liability Lawsuit

In Atchley v. University of Chicago Medical Center, the plaintiff was a delivery driver who was making a delivery of two pallets of beverages at the defendant’s premises. The plaintiff backed his truck up to the dock space, but he soon discovered that the dock lever that would raise the dock to the same level as the truck bed to create a ramp was not working. No other docks with levers were available, so the plaintiff used the air suspension system in his truck to lower the bed as much as possible. A small gap remained, however. The plaintiff then used the motorized pallet jack to unload the pallets, but the jack got stuck in the gap. The plaintiff obtained a steel dolly that he then used to try and free the jack. In the process, he fell and fractured his ankle.

The plaintiff and his wife filed a negligence and premises liability claim against the defendant. The defendant raised contributory negligence as a defense to the plaintiffs’ claims in its answer. The defendant then filed a motion for summary judgment, which the lower court granted, based on its conclusion that the danger presented by the gap was open and obvious and that the defendant did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care. It also concluded that the malfunctioning lever was not the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

The plaintiff appealed, and the reviewing court ultimately reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendant. First, the appellate court analyzed whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty. There are four factors a court will consider in determining whether a party owes another party a duty. The court evaluates the reasonable foreseeability of the resulting injury, the likelihood the injury would occur, the magnitude of the defendant’s burden in preventing the injury from happening, and the consequences that could result from placing a burden on the defendant. For a condition or potential injury to be deemed open and obvious, a reasonable person in the victim’s position with ordinary judgment, perception, and intelligence must be able to recognize both the risk and the condition.

Additionally, the open and obvious exception is subject to the deliberate encounter exception, which applies when a property owner has a reason to expect that an invitee would encounter an open and obvious danger due to his or her belief that the advantages outweigh the risks. This exception applies particularly when the individual must encounter the danger or shirk his or her duties.

In reversing the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendant, the court first stated that it is not immediately clear that the open and obvious doctrine applied. Although it was clear from the record that the plaintiff understood that he needed the lever to unload his goods, it was not clear that the plaintiff understood that he would face a risk of injury if he proceeded to unload the pallets without the lever. The court also concluded that even assuming the condition was open and obvious, the deliberate encounter exception would apply.

If you have suffered injuries as a result of a work-related accident or a landowner’s failure to maintain his or her premises in a safe condition, you may be entitled to compensation. At Therman Law Offices, our premises liability attorneys have assisted many Illinois residents with seeking the justice they deserve for their injuries and losses. We offer a free consultation to help you learn about your rights, so call us now at 312-588-1900 or contact us online to get started.

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