When a “caution” sign won’t cut it: Iowa Court reminds businesses they may still be on the hook for obvious hazards

Laura Wasson, Dickinson Law Firm, Iowa Commercial Litigation, Des Moines Iowa

Posted on 11/16/2017 at 12:00 AM by Laura Wasson

On November 8, 2017, the Iowa Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment for Bass Pro Shops on a negligence claim brought by Steven Eurich. In doing so, the Court confirmed that businesses may still be liable for dangerous conditions that injure patrons, even if the condition was obvious and known to the patron.

The case arose out of a trip by Mr. Eurich to a Bass Pro establishment in February 2014. Upon entering the store, Mr. Eurich noticed the rug in the entryway had 2-3 inch tall wrinkles. He proceeded to traverse the rug anyway, and ultimately fell to the floor after his foot was caught. He subsequently sued Bass Pro under a negligence theory for causing his injuries.

The district court granted summary judgment for Bass Pro, finding that because Mr. Eurich knew about the wrinkled rug and traversed it anyway, Bass Pro had no duty to him and was not negligent. That holding was reminiscent of Iowa’s former contributory negligence doctrine, under which a patron’s actual knowledge of a dangerous condition generally barred recovery against a business owner. Iowa abandoned that doctrine in 1982.

Iowa business owners should understand that Iowa is a “comparative fault” state, meaning that the obviousness of a condition, or even the patron’s knowledge of that condition, will not absolve them of liability. Instead, the patron’s knowledge of a condition is considered by a court when determining if the patron was negligent him/herself. If the patron was 40% at fault, for instance, Iowa courts may reduce their recovery by 40%, but a patron’s fault has no bearing on the question of whether the business was negligent, too.   

What can a business do? First, fix don’t warn. Posting a “caution” sign or communicating a dangerous condition to patrons may not absolve you of liability. Second, if you can’t fix, communicate the risk and block the area off. If a patron has the ability to come into contact with a hazardous condition, you’re at risk for paying for that patron’s injuries should they choose to. Third, take patron complaints seriously. If you’re on notice a hazardous condition exists, you’re more likely to be held liable for it.

If you have any questions regarding this ruling, commercial litigation, or business ownership, please contact Laura Wasson

The material in this blog is not intended, nor should it be construed or relied upon, as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney if specific legal information is needed. 

- Laura Wasson

 

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