Rhode Island landowners and businesses should be on notice that, over the summer (on July 15, 2019), the Rhode Island General Assembly amended the comparative negligence statute in this State, the effect of which offers greater legal protection to injured parties in personal injury cases. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-20-4. As amended, the comparative negligence statute eliminates a defense once available to defendants in these types of cases: no longer is the “fact that the danger or defect was open and obvious” a complete bar to a plaintiff’s recovery in a personal injury case. Prior to the issuance of this amendment, to the extent a defendant could demonstrate that the injury at issue resulted from a danger that was deemed “open and obvious,” courts in this state could conclude that the defendant did not owe a duty of care to have protected and/or warned the injured plaintiff, even where the injury took place on defendant’s own property or on property controlled by the defendant. As a result, in those cases, a plaintiff was unable to recover any damages under a negligence theory of liability. The amendment changes that.
However, the amendment does not overhaul well-settled negligence law in this state. To succeed on a negligence claim, an injured plaintiff still is required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e. that it is more likely than not) that the defendant owed a legal duty of care to the plaintiff and, if so, that the defendant’s conduct was the proximate cause of that injury. What has changed, however, is that the open and obvious nature of the danger or defect can no longer absolve a defendant of liability altogether. In that regard, a defendant can no longer successfully argue that it did not owe a duty of care to protect or warn an injured plaintiff in a case where the condition at issue was “open and obvious” to the plaintiff. However, although the fact that an open and obvious condition does not outright extinguish a legal duty otherwise running to the injured plaintiff, a jury must still decide how much fault should be apportioned to the defendant (and, in turn, how much must be borne by the plaintiff for his or her own negligence) relating to the injury.
We further note that the application of the amendment relating to “open and obvious” conditions applies prospectively only. That means it does not apply in cases involving injuries that occurred prior to July 15, 2019. Rather, the amendment applies only in cases involving injuries occurring after July 15, 2019. In Rhode Island, a plaintiff has up to three years from the date of an injury to file a complaint in Superior Court. Because of the applicable three years statute of limitations, cases involving injuries occurring after July 15, 2019 are not likely to be litigated for some time. Therefore, the actual legal impact of the statutory amendment remains to be seen.
In this regard, while it always should be the case that landowners and businesses operate with due regard as to foreseeable safety risks that may befall individuals on their premises, the amendment to the comparative negligence statute offers yet another good reason for landowners and businesses to re-assess their exposure. Indeed, a complete legal defense once available to defendants in personal injury cases has been eliminated under Rhode Island law.
Navigating premises liability law is not an easy task. It is always prudent to be in consultation with your lawyer to assess your potential exposure and minimize risks before injuries happen and the costs of litigation start to accrue.