Court Allows Rockslide Death Suit to Continue

Last week I returned from a family trip to (and, more specifically, to the bottom of) the Grand Canyon.  During my various treks throughout the canyon labyrinth, I conjured up numerous disaster scenarios.  Naturally, my thoughts – as they often do – drifted to litigation.  If I were injured, who would I sue?  Under what theories?  Would I succeed?

Last month, the New York State Court of Claims provided some guidance on similar issues.  A copy of the decision, Arsenault v. State of New York, 018-220-2011 (June 3, 2011), can be found here.  In sum, the case arose from injuries sustained by the claimants and wrongful death of one hiker due to a rockslide in Taughannock Falls State Park.

Claimants alleged that the State failed to maintain the park in a reasonably safe condition, despite numerous signs apparently warning of danger (including due to falling rocks).  The Court denied the State’s summary judgment motion, finding that material issues of fact required a trial.

The Court began by highlighting that summary judgment is a “drastic remedy which should only be granted where there are no issues of fact and the claim can be decided as a matter of law”, that the court’s role on such a motion is limited to issue identification, and that the evidence must be assessed in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.

It then outlined the law regarding the obligations of landowners (including, where applicable, the State):

The State, as a landowner, like any private citizen, owes the same duty of care to keep its property in reasonably safe condition in view of all of the circumstances. … The scope of that duty varies depending upon the foreseeable harm. … Where a dangerous condition exists of which the State has notice, either actual or constructive, it must take some action to remedy the danger.  … As part of the State’s duty to keep its property reasonably safe, it has a duty to warn of a dangerous condition that is not open and obvious. … Even where the landowner has warned of a dangerous condition, or where the defect is found to be open and obvious, liability may still be imposed if the property is not reasonably safe under all of the circumstances …, or if the landowner has reason to expect or anticipate that a person may be distracted so as not to discover what is obvious, forget what he has discovered, or fail to protect himself against it.

Defendant argued that the risk of falling rocks was “open and obvious given the natural condition of the Park, and the abundance of rocks and stones in the creek bed”, such that it “did not have a duty to warn, and there is no duty to protect people from natural geographic phenomena which can be readily observed.”  It also argued that “even if the State had a duty to warn, it posted a number of specific and clear warnings throughout the Park and, most importantly, on the bridge under which patrons walking in the creek bed must pass in order to get to the area next to the Falls, clearly alerting people to the specific danger that proximately caused Claimants’ injuries and [the decedent’s] death.”  Thus, Defendant argued, it was “solely the failure of Claimants and [decedent]to abide by the warnings provided that proximately caused their injuries.”

The Court rejected these arguments and denied Defendant’s motion, noting that “whether the signs Defendant provided were adequate to discharge its duty and make its property reasonably safe for those persons who came upon it cannot be determined as a matter of law”.  Moroever, it held:

Given Claimants’ submissions indicating that many people disregarded the posted signs and went to the site of the Falls, and that the State was well aware of this fact, raises questions as to the sufficiency of the signs, [i.e.], the reasonableness of the State’s preventative actions.  Claimants assert, without contradiction, that they did not see the signs and were not aware of the risk of falling rocks.  At the location of the footbridge, the submissions reflect that those walking in the creek bed had to traverse over many rocks and stones, which Claimants assert may have taken their attention away from seeing the signs. Although they are bound to see what, with the normal use of their senses, is there to be seen, given that so many people disregarded the signs raises questions of fact as to whether the signs alone were sufficient to make the property reasonably safe. … Whether the State undertook reasonable measures in this case requires a factual weighing of the severity of potential injuries against the burden on the landowner to avoid the risk.

Among other things, this case illustrates (yet again) the stringent burden faced by a summary judgment movant, as well as the fact that warning signs do not always foreclose a finding of liability due to an allegedly unsafe property condition.

Update: Decision reversed.