We begin our previews of the civil cases which the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to review at the conclusion of its January term with Bruns v. The City of Centralia, Illinois. Bruns – which arises from the Fifth District – offers the Court an opportunity to discuss the breadth of the so-called "distraction" exception to the rule that no one is liable for open-and-obvious perils.
On a clear day in the late winter of 2012, the eighty-year-old plaintiff in Bruns approached her Eye Clinic for a scheduled appointment. She tripped over a raised section of sidewalk that was part of the path used to access the front entrance to the Clinic, severely injuring her shoulder and arm.
The raised portion of the sidewalk where plaintiff fell had been well known. Over time, the root system of a large tree near the sidewalk had caused a portion of the sidewalk to crack and heave, ultimately raising the cracked sidewalk about three inches above the adjacent slabs. The Clinic had reported the situation to the city (which owned the sidewalk), even offering to have the tree removed at its own expense. But the City’s tree committee had refused permission for the tree to be removed on grounds of its historic significance.
The plaintiff was being treated for various issues, including blurry and reduced vision. She was aware of the sidewalk defect from previous visits to the Clinic. Nevertheless, at the time of the accident, her attention was focused on the Clinic steps and entrance, not the sidewalk.
The trial court concluded that the sidewalk defect was open and obvious, and defendant accordingly owed plaintiff no duty of care. The court held that the "distraction exception" to the open-and-obvious didn’t apply under the circumstances — given that the City neither created, nor contributed to or was otherwise responsible for the distraction of the Clinic door and steps — and entered summary judgment in favor of the City.
The Appellate Court reversed. Both sides agreed, the Court wrote, that the peril of the sidewalk was open and obvious as a matter of law. However, the open-and-obvious rule was subject to a "distraction" exception. "The exception applied when there is reason to expect that a plaintiff’s attention may be distracted from the open and obvious condition to the extent that he or she will forget the hazard that has already been discovered," the court wrote. Under such circumstances, a property owner’s duty is reinstated.
The issue in applying the distraction exception was not who created the distraction, the Court found, but rather the likelihood that an individual’s attention would be distracted by it. "It is certainly reasonable," the Court held, "to foresee that an elderly patron of an eye clinic might have his or her attention focused on the pathway forward to the door and steps of the clinic as opposed to the path immediately underfoot." It was "not necessary," the Court wrote, "for a defendant to foresee the precise nature of the distraction." The City had knowledge of the condition of the sidewalk, and other options — aside from the removal of the tree – existed for mitigating the peril, such as routing the sidewalk around the tree. Accordingly, the Court found, the burden on the City was not significant. Taking all this into account, there was sufficient grounds to conclude that the City had a duty of care, and the negligence claim should have been sent to the jury, the Court held.
Given the Supreme Court’s recent cases, it is not especially surprising that the Court would allow the petition for leave to appeal in Bruns. The Court has debated the breadth of the open-and-obvious rule, and occasionally the distraction exception, in recent cases, most recently in Moore v. Chicago Park District. Expect the defendant in Bruns to argue that the distraction exception should either be tightly limited — perhaps to distractions caused by the defendant – -or abolished entirely. In any case, the defendant is likely to argue that if the mere existence of a set of steps and a door constitutes a "distraction" sufficient to send a case to the jury, then there effectively is nothing left of the open-and-obvious rule under Illinois law. Appellate Strategist will be carefully following the progress of Bruns in the coming months.
We expect Bruns to be decided in six to eight months.