A Capehart Scatchard Blog

No Duty To Warn for Open and Obvious Condition

By on May 8, 2014 in Blog with 0 Comments

Plaintiff Thomas Hackett suffered injuries when he hit his head on the ceiling when climbing a ladder to a water tower on the roof of a commercial building to repair an air conditioner. He was a technician working for Statewide Conditioning Inc., which had a contract with the defendants to perform the HVAC repair work. In Hackett v. Somerset Executive Square, 2014 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 678 (App. Div. March 27, 2014), the plaintiff sued the defendants, claiming that the small pass-through opening in the ceiling was a dangerous condition.

To access the roof, the plaintiff had to climb a fixed ladder and pass through the small opening in the ceiling. The fixed ladder’s clearance was about 19 inches between the edge of the ceiling opening and the ladder rungs. While he struggled through the pass-through earlier in the day, the third time that he went through, he hit his head on the ceiling, causing his injuries.

The plaintiff was aware of the obvious hazard and testified that it was a very restricted space. The trial judge found that the dangerous condition, the small cut-out in the ceiling allowing access to the roof, was open and obvious. Hence, the defendants had no duty to warn their business invitee of the condition. They were only required to protect the plaintiff from conditions that were not obvious or visible upon ordinary observation. The trial judge granted summary judgment, dismissing the case.

The plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Division. The appeals court noted that summary judgment is appropriate when the hazardous condition is obvious. Given that the evidence showed that the dangerous condition was apparent to the plaintiff, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court judge and affirmed the dismissal of the case.

In upholding the decision, the court cited to several cases, which were not the traditional invitee cases. The court referred back to the Hopkins v. Fox & Lazo Realtors case and stated that “[o]ur courts have reduced the emphasis on the nature of the relationship between the parties, focusing also on other factors.”

This case exemplifies the blurring of the traditional categories (invitee, licensee, or trespasser) used to determine liability in a landowner premises case. Our NJ courts continue to focus on other factors such as the forseeability of the harm and the overall fairness in considering whether to impose a duty on a landowner for an injury caused by a condition of its property. The Hackett case is one case in which a NJ court refused to impose that duty.

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Betsy G. Ramos

About the Author

About the Author:

Ms. Ramos is an Executive Committee Member and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Capehart Scatchard, P.A. located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She is an experienced litigator with over 25 years experience handling diverse matters. Practice areas include tort defense, business litigation, estate litigation, tort claims and civil rights defense, construction litigation, insurance coverage, employment litigation, shareholder disputes, and general litigation.

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