We have all been there. Walking through the aisle of a store and some store personnel who was stocking a shelf has left a ladder or some supplies right in the middle of the aisle, obstructing the path. Well, the Plaintiff in this case did what most of us would do. She attempted to walk around the ladder, but when she did -- bam! – she hit her head on a metal shelf that was on the other side of ladder, and she (sadly) suffered significant, and likely permanent, brain injury.
In this diversity jurisdiction personal injury case, Zankow v. Sears Holding Corp., et al., Plaintiff claimed that Sears was negligent because the placement of the ladder combined with the shelves in the narrow aisle created an unreasonably dangerous condition that caused her serious and permanent injuries. The shelves were 1 to 1.5 inches thick and were connected to the back of a shelving unit with no side walls. While trying to get around the ladder, Plaintiff apparently did not notice the shelves as she was focused on the ladder – the original obstruction.
For its part, Defendant claimed that it should not be held liable as the ladder and the shelves were in plain sight; and, in any event, because Plaintiff failed to use ordinary and reasonable care in walking around the ladder, she was contributorily negligent and barred from recovery.
On summary judgment, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s claims. The Court ruled that from the pictures submitted by the Plaintiff of the scene (which were attached to the Opinion) and the description provided, the shelf and the ladder were “open and obvious” conditions from which Plaintiff had a duty to use reasonable care to avoid. The court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the shelf she hit her head on was protruding, because the evidence showed that no one shelf stuck out further than the others. Further, the Court did not find that the combination of the ladder and the shelves rendered either of the hazards “latent” such that Plaintiff would not have been expected to notice and avoid the open and obvious hazards. Citing Virginia Supreme Court precedent, the Court ruled that once a hazard is deemed to be open and obvious, an injured plaintiff’s claim must fail as a matter of law since she will be deemed to have failed to exercise reasonable care, and will thus be found contributorily negligent.