Liability of cities and other property owners to entrants for dangerous conditions.
In March of 2009, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the case of Kreiger v. City of St. Paul, Court File No. A08-0750 (Minn. Ct. App. March 10, 2009) in which Ms. Kreiger, a 78-year-old woman, sued the City of St. Paul after she tripped on a gouge in a temporary sidewalk at the North Dale Recreational Center. The court found in favor of the city. This case elaborates on the duty of care owed by cities to rightful park users and by private property owners to trespassers.
The duty of care owed by a city to protect entrants onto recreational property (such as parks or recreation centers) is the same duty of care that a private property owner owes to protect illegal trespassers on their property, namely that the property owner will be held liable when: (1) the owner creates or maintains an artificial condition, (2) the owner knows the condition is likely to cause death or serious bodily harm, (3) the owner has reason to believe the entrant/trespasser will not discover the dangerous condition, and (4) the owner fails to warn of the condition and the risk involved.
In Kreiger v. City of St. Paul, the Court ruled that the city was not liable. Ms. Kreiger argued that the gouge in the sidewalk could cause serious bodily injury to an elderly person and argued the Court should consider that fact. The Court disagreed, and held that the standard to apply was a risk of death or serious bodily injury to the average able-bodied adult, and that a gouge in a sidewalk did not rise to that level. The condition must be an inherently dangerous one that is likely to cause death or serious harm, and not just one that is possible to cause such harm in remote cases or to particularly vulnerable persons.
The Court also ruled that the property owner must have actual knowledge of the dangerous condition in order to be held liable, mere constructive knowledge is not enough. The court found that the City of St. Paul could also be absolved for lack of knowledge of the condition.
This case indeed sets a high standard for injured persons to prove liability against the property owner either in the case of a permissive use of a city's parks or other recreational facilities, or in the case of a trespasser on a private individual's property. The property owner will only be held responsible for inherently dangerous conditions that are likely to cause death or serious bodily harm to the average able-bodied adult. Moreover, the property owner must have actual knowledge of the dangerous condition, and the condition must not be reasonably discoverable by the entrant. The property owner may also avoid liability by providing a warning. Thus a wide variety of defenses may be asserted against such claims. However, the lesson to be learned is that the property owner should, at the very least, place warning signs for highly dangerous conditions on their property.