Open and obvious: “both the condition and the risk are apparent to and would be recognized by a reasonable man . . . exercising ordinary perception, intelligence, and judgment.”

The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District reversed and remanded Michael Lee v. Missouri Department of Transportation, a wrongful death lawsuit, back to the Circuit Court of Boone County, Missouri. Michael Lee appealed a dismissal by the trial court of his Third Amended Petition, alleging wrongful death claims for the death of his daughter against the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission (MHTC). 

The claims arose from a tragic accident involving Mr. Lee’s daughter and his grandchild who were ultimately unable to escape a flooded area on a road where they were driving one early morning. Mr. Lee’s granddaughter was following another vehicle just before the tragic incident, she stopped, just as the other vehicle did, to examine the flooded portion of the road, before unsuccessfully attempting to drive through the flooded area.

Mr. Lee alleged that the portion of the roadway at issue was known to MHTC as a flood hazard, that MHTC failed to provide adequate barriers or guardrails to keep vehicles from being swept off the roadway, and failed to provide adequate warnings that the road would flood. 

The Court dismissed Plaintiff’s Petition, after MHTC filed a combined dispositive motion, seeking alternative forms of relief (Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; Motion to Dismiss; Motion to Strike), arguing that that the flooded roadway was an open and obvious condition and that Mr. Lee’s daughter had a duty to exercise reasonable care for her own safety. The trial court ruled that dismissal was proper due to Plaintiff’s own pleadings and the reasonable inferences therefrom indicating that Mr. Lee’s daughter “saw the danger, examined the danger and decided to proceed anyway.”

On appeal, Mr. Lee first asserted the trial court failed to consider the facts pleaded and the reasonable inferences from the Petition in the light most favorable to Mr. Lee, as the non-moving party.   The appellate Court focused on whether the Petition adequately set forth the elements to support a claim of imposing liability on a possessor of land (MHTC) for injuries sustained by an invitee (Mr. Lee’s daughter) due to conditions on that land, i.e.:

(a) MHTC knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, and

(b) MHTC should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger or will fail to protect themselves against it, and

(c) Invitee (Mr. Lee’s daughter) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger. 

The ultimate question for the Court thus became whether Mr. Lee’s daughter should have realized the danger posed by the flooded condition of the roadway. The trial court ultimately concluded the cause of action fell under a case called Harris v. Niehaus, 857 S.W.2d at 224, which involved another tragic accident in which a mother lost her three children to drowning after her vehicle, parked on a sloped roadway, rolled down the street and into a lake that was plainly visible (aka open and obvious) to the mother.

The appellate Court in Lee, however, found the case to be distinguishable from Harris, concluding that evidence that needed to be considered could be presented at trial and a juror could infer whether it was reasonable or safe to cross the roadway. In other words, the Court ruled in favor of Mr. Lee on Point 1, finding that what is reasonable is for a jury to decide.

Mr. Lee’s second point on appeal focused on the trial court failing to properly construe and apply the meaning of section 343A of the Second Restatement of Torts. Specifically, he argued the Petition properly alleged that MHTC should have anticipated the harm despite any knowledge or obviousness that may have existed on the part of his daughter.

As explained by the Court, even if the flooded roadway was open and obvious, if the jury determined that MHTC should have anticipated the harm, then it would still be liable. The Court found that the Petition adequately alleged that MHTC was aware of certain issues of flooding with the roadway, as well as ingress and egress of local residents on that roadway. Agreeing with the Plaintiff, the Court found reasonable minds could differ on the facts surrounding roadway flooding, and it was up to the jury to determine whether the possessor of land should have anticipated harm to an invitee despite the open and obvious hazard.

So what does this all mean?

As defense lawyers, we are generally pleased to see successful trial court outcomes in cases of this type. Frankly, however, the Court of Appeals ruling in this case did not come as much of a surprise.

When considering a motion to dismiss in Missouri, the trial court reviews the Petition and the facts stated within its four corners in a light most favorable to the non-moving party (typically the Plaintiff), also giving all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. However, in this case, the trial court appeared to give the inferences to the defendant, ultimately finding that the open and obvious doctrine supported dismissal at the pleading stage. While we are aware of cases that were ultimately resolved in favor of the defendant based on the open and obvious doctrine, including the appellate case the trial court relied on to support dismissal, such cases typically have a greater developed factual record that has been before the Court and/or the jury.

The procedural posture of this case was somewhat unusual. The Plaintiff, Michael Lee, appears to have had two separate cases – one for his grandchild and the present case for his daughter. The case brought for the death of Michael Lee’s grandchild was dismissed (affirmed on appeal) for various reasons. Curiously, however, in this case, MHTC did not raise the open and obvious issue as an affirmative defense to prior amended Petitions, which made the same allegations. It was only when Mr. Lee amended to fix another problem with his prior Petitions that MHTC raised this argument along with other defenses. In addition, there appears to have been discovery, depositions, and more motions, but none of that was part of this appellate record, because the defendant sought to have the case disposed of via a Motion to Dismiss, rather than a Motion for Summary Judgment (which focuses on undisputed facts elicited in discovery, rather than the legal sufficiency of Plaintiff’s Petition).

In any event, Michael Lee v. Mo. Dept. of Transp. is back before the trial court, and it remains to be seen what will happen next. Unless the case is settled, a jury may well get to decide what is “open and obvious” and reasonable.