Supreme Court overturns rare win for injury victim in "slip and fall" case
Sabatos v. Cherrywood Lodge involves a restaurant worker who fractured a leg in the parking lot as she was leaving work. When she exited the restaurant in the early morning, she found the parking lot a sheet of ice. She filed a legal action, arguing that the lot owner did not take reasonable steps to make the parking lot safe within a reasonable time. The trial judge dismissed her claim summarily--before going to the jury--because the judge deemed the icy conditions an "open and obvious" hazard which she confronted voluntarily.
Sabato appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed the summary disposition. The appellate judges ruled that even if the ice lot was an apparent danger, she had no reasonable option but to traverse it to get to her car. The judges deemed it a fact question for the jury whether Sabato's conduct was reasonable and whether the lot owner's response to the icy conditions was reasonable.
The insurer appealed to the Supreme Court and this week the Court reversed the appellate decision. It send the case back to the Court of Appeals to reconsider in light of a previous Supreme Court decision involving similar, but not exactly the same conditions.
The Republican majority of the Supreme Court had previously held that a woman who fell on ice on her way in to her gym could not sue. It ruled in that case that the woman was not forced to confront the icy sidewalk risk and that the landowner owed no duty to address the risk--since it was "apparent on casual inspection." The Republican majority has expanded an old exception to the land owner's duty of reasonable care to completely eliminate any duty--no matter how reasonable--if the invitee could appreciate the hazard on casual inspection. The Court has since applied that expanded exception to liability to make even "black ice" an "open and obvious" danger.
Apparently, the Court's insurer-friendly majority is now prepared to consider an even broader expansion. In the prior cases, the Court relied on the fact that the injury victim wasn't "trapped" by hazardous conditions and was free to simply drive home and complete the intended task on a day when he or she would not be required to confront a hazard. Given Ms. Sabato's presence at work and her attempt to leave work by traversing an icy parking lot, the Court is apparently willing to hold that she should have bedded down for the night in the restaurant kitchen. Maybe the restaurant had large, padded booths? That's how most reasonable people would respond to Sabato's predicament, right? Particularly if they had young kids at home, whom they could avoid?
Sadly, our current Court majority is no longer embarrassed by bluntly insurance-friendly rulings divorced from precedent or the rule of reason.