Stupidity Doesn’t Pay

We’ve all heard of, or even litigated, those cases where someone does something ridiculous on another person’s property, injuring him or herself in the process, then sues the property owner as if it was somehow the owner’s fault. Rest assured, Illinois’ Second District Appellate Court was having none of this in its recent decision in Lee v. Lee, 2019 IL App (2d) 180923. The decision is noteworthy not only because the court applied the open and obvious defense to an ordinary negligence case, but also because the court sua sponte held as a matter of law—based solely on the plaintiff’s outlandish conduct—that the defendant did not owe the plaintiff a duty, and that the plaintiff’s own contributory negligence was greater than 50%, both of which precluded any recovery for the plaintiff.

Background Facts

The plaintiff, Kun Mook Lee (“Kun”), and defendant, Young Rok Lee (“Young”), were members of the same church. Kun and the church’s pastor went to Young’s home one day and attempted to trim an overgrown tree limb on Young’s property. Young never asked for their assistance; in fact, he specifically asked them not to come because the limb was too large and too high, and trimming it would be too dangerous.

Nevertheless, the two men arrived at Young’s home and got to work. They began by fastening two small ladders together with wire to reach the dangerously high limb. Once constructed, Kun leaned the uber-ladder against the very tree limb to be cut, climbed the ladder, and proceeded to cut the limb. Not surprisingly, when the supporting limb fell, so did the ladder, and so did Kun.

Kun then sued Young for ordinary negligence. Young moved for summary judgment on an “open and obvious” defense only, and the trial court granted Young’s motion.

Appellate Court Decision

On appeal, Kun argued the open and obvious defense was not available to Young because Kun alleged ordinary negligence and not premises liability. But the appellate court found the distinction irrelevant and affirmed the trial court’s application of the defense because the complaint sounded in premises liability (i.e., Young was a landowner and Kun an invitee) and Young had a duty to protect Kun from dangers on Young’s property. But the dangerous “condition” as alleged was open and obvious to Kun: according to the court, no reasonable person would not have appreciated the obvious danger in tying two ladders together, placing the ladders against the very same tree limb to be cut, then climbing the ladders and cutting the limb. As such, the appellate court found summary judgment on Young’s open and obvious defense was appropriate.

But the court did not stop there. Sua sponte the court further held that even if the open and obvious defense did not apply, Kun’s negligence claim could not stand because the evidence warranted a finding as a matter of law that Young owed no duty to Kun. In making this finding, the court mentioned all four factors in Simpkins v. CSX Transportations, Inc., 2012 IL 110662 for determining if a relationship-induced duty exists, but it considered only the first factor—whether the plaintiff’s injury was reasonably foreseeable to the defendant—to reach its decision. After determining Kun’s injuries were not foreseeable to Young because they resulted from Kun’s own “freakish” and “bizarre” behavior, the court found as a matter of law that Young owed no duty to Kun.

And finally, for good measure, the court noted that even if the open and obvious defense was inapplicable, and even if Young owed a duty, Kun would still be precluded from recovery because it found, again as a matter of law, Kun’s actions went “well beyond” a showing of more than 50% negligence on Kun’s part.

In a litigation-crazed world, the Lee case is a much needed reminder that common sense still prevails in Illinois jurisprudence.

  • Sarah B. Jansen

    Sarah B. Jansen focuses her practice on construction contracts and defense litigation, commercial general liability coverage, risk transfer matters, and municipal law. She also practices in the area of complex civil litigation ...

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