NC Case Law: Utley v Smith and Premises Liability: -or- The Danger of Collard Greens and Ice. (NC COA16-463, 12/6/2016)
After asking for and receiving directions to the collard greens, Utley tripped over some tomato crates that were staked in an aisle in the outdoor garden area of a Wake County hardware store, tomato crates that Utley had walked past earlier without incident. The question: Was the hardware store liable?
A real property owner in North Carolina owes a duty of “reasonable care” to all lawful visitors. Specifically, according to the NC Supreme Court a business owner’s duty is to “exercise ‘ordinary care to keep in a reasonably safe condition those portions of its premises which it may expect will be used by its customers during business hours, and to give warning of hidden perils or unsafe conditions insofar as they can be ascertained by reasonable inspection and supervision.’ ” Raper v. McCrory-McLellan Corp., 130 S.E.2d 281, 283 (1963). Further, NC Courts have said that an owner “is under no duty to warn invitees of obvious dangers of which they have equal or superior knowledge.” Jacobs v. Hill’s Food Stores, Inc., 364 S.E.2d 692 (1988). In Jacobs, the plaintiff tried to sue the store after falling over a concrete block in a walkway running from the store to the parking lot. The Court said that the store owner had no duty to warn of the obvious danger of the concrete block, and so was not liable for the fall. So here in Utley, the hardware store was not liable.
But it doesn’t end there, though. There may be a condition which is obvious, but which the visitor cannot deal with in any reasonably safe way. If such a condition exists on a business property, but the property is held open to the visitor anyway, the fact that the visitor is aware of the condition won’t protect the owner. The classic example is icy steps which, of course, are always dangerous even in spite of warnings. In such instances, the owner may very well be liable for harm that comes to guests/customers.
So as a business owner, it is critical to deal with such hazards either by curing them or by preventing customers/clients/guests from coming into the range of the danger.