Hale v. Beckstead

Decision Date12 April 2005
Docket NumberNo. 20030641.,20030641.
Citation116 P.3d 263,2005 UT 24
PartiesJohn D. HALE, Plaintiff and Petitioner, v. Kurt BECKSTEAD and John Does I through V, Defendants and Respondent.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Aaron J. Prisbrey, Elizabeth B. Grimshaw, St. George, for petitioner.

Brent M. Brindley, St. George, for respondent.

On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals.

WILKINS, Associate Chief Justice:

¶ 1 Plaintiff John Hale appeals the court of appeals' decision to affirm a grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant Kurt Beckstead in Hale's premises liability action. Hale brought suit against Beckstead to recover for injuries he sustained when he fell from an unprotected balcony while painting the interior of Beckstead's semiconstructed home. The district court granted summary judgment to Beckstead, reasoning that the defendant owed no duty of care to Hale because the danger the unprotected balcony posed was open and obvious. The court of appeals affirmed, also citing the Second Restatement of Torts sections 343 and 343A as barring recovery. Hale now appeals to this court. We reverse and remand for further factual determination.

BACKGROUND

¶ 2 When reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we are to "`review the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.'" Houghton v. Dep't of Health, 2002 UT 101, ¶ 2, 57 P.3d 1067 (quoting Regal Ins. Co. v. Bott, 2001 UT 71, ¶ 2, 31 P.3d 524). The court of appeals adhered to this principle in its opinion below. See Hale v. Beckstead, 2003 UT App 240, ¶ 2, 74 P.3d 628. We thus recite the facts as the court of appeals presented them.

¶ 3 Beckstead, acting as his own general contractor, hired Hale to paint the interior of his semiconstructed home in Santa Clara, Utah in 1996. Beckstead purchased the paint supplies and indicated generally how he wanted the paint to look, but otherwise exercised no control over the manner in which Hale was to accomplish the job for which he was hired. Because the house was still under construction, a railing had not been installed on the second floor balcony. While painting one day, Hale was injured when he accidentally stepped off the second floor balcony and fell to the floor below.

¶ 4 Hale filed suit against Beckstead in the Fifth District Court for Washington County, alleging negligence based on principles of premises liability. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Beckstead, reasoning that Beckstead bore no duty of care to Hale because "any danger posed to [Hale] by the condition of [Beckstead's] partially-completed home was open and obvious to [Hale]." Hale, 2003 UT App 240 at ¶ 7, 74 P.3d 628 (alterations in original) (internal quotations omitted).

¶ 5 The court of appeals affirmed the trial court. Id. at ¶ 1. It concluded that the open and obvious danger rule, as embodied in the Second Restatement of Torts, was the applicable law governing landowners' duties to invitees. Though the court of appeals felt that its prior decision in Donahue v. Durfee, 780 P.2d 1275 (Utah Ct.App.1989), had abolished the rule in Utah as contrary to principles of comparative fault theory, it reasoned that this court's decision in House v. Armour of America Inc., 929 P.2d 340 (Utah 1996), reinstated the rule that Donahue had abandoned. Hale, 2003 UT App 240 at ¶ 9, 74 P.3d 628 n. 1.

¶ 6 After applying the rule to the case at bar, the court of appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment, reasoning that the danger the balcony presented was open and obvious and that Beckstead had no reason to anticipate that Hale would suffer injury despite the obviousness. Id. at ¶ 24. Hale appealed the decision to this court.

ANALYSIS
I. UTAH'S COMPARATIVE FAULT SYSTEM RECOGNIZES THE OPEN AND OBVIOUS DANGER RULE

¶ 7 The duty of care that possessors of land in Utah owe to invitees upon their property is set forth in sections 343 and 343A of the Second Restatement of Torts. See English v. Kienke, 848 P.2d 153, 156 (Utah 1993) (applying sections 343 and 343A of the Restatement to determine the duty a possessor of land owes to invitees in a premises liability action). While often referred to as the "open and obvious danger rule," the Restatement provisions are actually substantially different from the old common law rule governing landowner liability bearing the same name.1 Use of the same phrase to refer to the two separate doctrines has created some confusion in this area of the law that we seek to clarify in this opinion. As the common law rule is no longer operative in Utah, any reference in this opinion to the "open and obvious danger rule" is simply a reference to Restatement sections 343 and 343A, not the common law doctrine that the Restatement replaced.

¶ 8 Thus, the applicable law is found in sections 343 and 343A, comprising Title E, "Special Liability of Possessors of Land to Invitees." Title E, as its name indicates, simply defines the duty of care a landowner owes to invitees on his property, and is broken into two sections that must be read together. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 343, cmt. a (1965) ("This section should be read together with § 343A."). Section 343, "Dangerous Conditions Known to or Discoverable by Possessor," reads:

A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land if, but only if, he (a) 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) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger.

Id. § 343 (emphasis added).

¶ 9 Section 343A, entitled "Known or Obvious Dangers," reads:

(1) A possessor of land is not liable to his invitees for physical harm caused to them by any activity or condition on the land whose danger is known or obvious to them, unless the possessor should anticipate the harm despite such knowledge or obviousness.

(2) In determining whether the possessor should anticipate harm from a known or obvious danger, the fact that the invitee is entitled to make use of public land, or of the facilities of a public utility, is a factor of importance indicating that the harm should be anticipated.

Id. § 343A.

¶ 10 Deciding whether the court of appeals properly affirmed the summary judgment motion in favor of Beckstead requires us to determine how the language in these two sections is to be applied in light of our comparative negligence system. As to this issue, the parties urge differing conclusions.

¶ 11 Hale contends that the rule has been abolished in Utah to the extent that it operated as an absolute bar to recovery, but that it remains viable as a factor to be considered in determining the duty of care owed. In support of his argument, Hale cites the court of appeals' prior premises liability decision in Donahue v. Durfee, where the court stated that "the Utah Legislature has by necessary implication abolished the open and obvious danger rule as an absolute bar to . . . recovery." 780 P.2d 1275, 1279 (Utah Ct.App.1989).

¶ 12 While Hale does not claim to be wholly free from blame in injuring himself, he argues that the court of appeals' decision improperly relieved Beckstead of all liability simply because Hale bore a portion of fault in the accident. The court of appeals' reasoning, Hale argued, contravened comparative fault principles that should have guided that court's analysis of the open and obvious danger rule.

¶ 13 Beckstead, on the other hand, argues that the Restatement rule can, in some circumstances, fully absolve a defendant from liability by serving as a complete defense to a negligence charge. He argues that this court overturned Donahue's "sweeping" abolition of the rule as an absolute bar to recovery when we decided House v. Armour of America Inc., 929 P.2d 340 (Utah 1996). There, we ruled that, in products liability actions, the obviousness of a danger that is inherent in a product and that cannot be economically alleviated can act as a complete bar to a plaintiff's recovery. Id. at 344. Under House, Beckstead argues, Hale is barred from any recovery for his injuries.

¶ 14 The court of appeals properly determined that "the open and obvious danger rule, as outlined in sections 343 and 343A of the Restatement, is the applicable law in this case." Hale, 2003 UT App 240 at ¶ 11, 74 P.3d 628. The court also appropriately characterized the rule as one that defines the duty of care a landowner owes an invitee. Id. at ¶¶ 12-13. Further, the court below did not simply apply the Restatement as an absolute bar to recovery, but instead explored the instances in which a landowner owes a duty of care despite the obviousness of a danger to determine whether Hale could recover. Id. at ¶ 15. Though we conclude that the court prematurely dismissed Hale's case, we ratify its invocation of the Restatement as the proper rule to apply here.

¶ 15 We are concerned, however, that the court of appeals' reason for invoking the Restatement demonstrates a confusion in the law that we feel we must clarify. The court concluded that the Restatement governed the instant action essentially because this court reinstated the rule, purportedly abandoned in Donahue, when we decided House. See Hale, 2003 UT App 240 at ¶ 9, 74 P.3d 628 n. 1 ("[W]e conclude that Donahue has since been overruled sub silento [sic] by our supreme court."). We take this opportunity to address the status of Donahue and explain the application of the open and obvious danger rule in landowner liability cases.

¶ 16 In Donahue, the court of appeals stated that the common law version of the open and obvious danger rule was incompatible with a comparative fault tort system. Donahue, 780 P.2d at 1279. The court further concluded that Restatement rule was a modification of the common...

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