While landowners in Florida have a responsibility to maintain their property in a safe condition or warn of nonobvious dangers, this duty may not apply if you are walking someplace on the property you are not supposed to be, such as landscaped areas, when other options are available.
In a recent case, a man went to the store Sam’s Club to buy something. He parked in their parking lot, which was landscaped with dirt, trees and grass that was not bounded with curbs. It had walkways that permitted people to walk from one landscaped area to the next without stepping onto the landscaped area. No signs told people to use these walkways.
The man left his car and tried to move through the landscaped area towards the store entrance. He knew there were walkways, but he chose to walk through the landscaping because it presented a shorter distance from the car to the entrance. His foot caught on a tree root and the man fell on a parking stop. He had to be taken to the hospital.
The man sued Sam’s Club, claiming that the store had breached its duty to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition by letting the tree roots grow on top of the landscaped areas, hidden by grass and leaves. He claimed it was a latent danger.
The defendant disclosed during discovery that two others had tripped over tree roots in the same area before the plaintiff’s accident. An employee of the store testified the store was responsible for evaluating the hazards in the lot. The employee said that the store had a landscaping service for routine landscaping, but that tree-root-removal would have required a specific request.
The store moved for summary judgment, arguing the plaintiff had chosen to take a shortcut through the landscaped areas in spite of the walkways. The court initially denied the motion, but granted it upon reconsideration. The plaintiff appealed.
On appeal, the appellate court explained that a Florida landowner has the duty to maintain the premises in a safe condition and to warn of concealed dangers. There is also an obvious danger doctrine, which states that a landowner cannot be liable for open, obvious or known dangers on a property unless he or she should anticipate the harm.
The store relied on a past case in which a plaintiff had tripped on a tree stump in a planting bed on her way to a restaurant. The court in that case had stated that some conditions are so obvious — such as walking in a planting bed when there are walkways — they cannot be a dangerous condition.
The appellate court explained that the tree roots in the landscaped areas were obvious and not inherently dangerous. It found that the plaintiff could have safely crossed the landscaping areas using the concrete walkways. It also reasoned that the precise nature of a hazard does not need to be actually observed to know it is there. A change in level in landscaping areas is to be expected. Furthermore, the man had testified that he knew there was a walkway, but chose not to use it.
The plaintiff had also argued for reversal based on the fact that two other people had tripped on tree roots. Interestingly, the court ruled these prior falls did not create a duty in Florida for Sam’s Club to make landscaped areas safe for pedestrians.
If you are seriously injured on somebody else’s property, contact the experienced Florida premises liability attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.
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