Mark Henkle

June 6th, 2021

In retail businesses, premises liability issues can be a stumbling block for property owners or possessors.    In Draughon v. Evening Star Holiness Church of Dunn 374 N.C. 479 (2020), a funeral attendee brought action against a church after he tripped on the stairs, alleging failure to keep premises in a reasonably safe condition and failure to warn of a dangerous and defective condition. After the trial court granted summary judgment, the case climbed the appellate ladder, where it was decided by the North Carlina Supreme Court in June 2020.  The Court ultimately held that because the condition of the top step would be open and obvious to a reasonable person, defendant had no duty to warn plaintiff. Similarly, because plaintiff, after his previous descent of the steps, did not heed the risk obviously presented by the distinct appearance of the top step, and the Plaintiff failed to take reasonable care for his own safety, his own negligence contributed to his fall.

Some key takeaways from the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision are:

  • Distinctive appearance is an important factor – In Draughon the Plaintiff tripped over the top step of a six-step stairwell leading into a church.  The top step was made from red brick and gray concrete (as opposed to just gray concrete) and had a white wooden platform on the top.  The height of this top stair was greater than other steps by about four inches.  The Court applied an objective reasonableness standard and stated that the height differential of the step and the starkly different materials between the top step and others was obviously different. As such, the great differences would have been apparent to a reasonable person.
  • Clear visibility of the condition – In Draughon, the step in question sat a few feet above the ground; thus, it was at a height plainly visible to someone walking towards the steps and then using them. The Court stated that “Common experience dictates that a reasonable person would recognize the starkly different condition of the top step and thus understand that he would have to step up higher when he arrived at it.”  Moreover, there were no obstructions to viewing the steps in question.
  • Prior experience or traversal – In Draughon, the Plaintiff had traversed the stairway without issue prior to his fall.  The Court stated that Plaintiff had just walked down the set of stairs, experiencing the difference in the height of the steps firsthand. A reasonable person in Plaintiff’s position would have become aware of the approximately four-inch difference.

Applying these three (3) factors, the Court held that the condition of the  step at issue was an open and obvious condition under the objective reasonableness standard, and therefore the Defendant had no duty to warn the Plaintiff.  Simply put, due to the step’s distinctive height, appearance, clear visibility of the steps, and Plaintiff’s prior traversal, the Court held that the Plaintiff could not meet the elements of a premises liability negligence claim.  For businesses, making sure that access points and premises conditions are conspicuous, noticeable  and visible on the front end, can help them take advantage of an open and obvious defense should a premise liability case proceed to litigation.