Jimenez v. Applebee’s – Open and Obvious Doctrine Defeats Restaurant Injury Lawsuit

In a case that has gained national attention in recent days, the New Jersey Superior Court has ruled in favor of defendants in a restaurant injury case in which a man said he was badly burned while bowing over a hot plate to pray before his meal.
The man argued he suffered burns on his eye, face, neck and arms after hot grease from his fajita “popped” in the air while his head was bowed over the food. Although he indicated the plate was “sizzling” as it was served to him, he contended the waitress never warned him the plate was hot and he suffered serious and permanent injuries as a result of coming in contact with a hazardous and dangerous condition – i.e., a hot plate of food.

However, the appellate panel in Jimenez v. Applebee’s affirmed trial court’s summary judgment for defense, finding neither the restaurant nor its employees were required to warn patrons of a danger that is open and obvious. The patron could clearly see/hear the food being served was extremely hot, and chose to put his face close to it anyway.

The “open and obvious” doctrine is commonly argued in premises liability law, and clearly as this case shows, can be a successful defense. Property owners – businesses and government agencies in particular – owe a duty to the public to discover and eliminate dangerous conditions on their property. They also have to keep their property in safe condition and avoid creating conditions that would put invited guests at risk.

At its core, the open and obvious doctrine assumes guests have a duty as well – to recognize potential danger and to take reasonable action to protect themselves against it. That is, even if dangerous conditions exist on a property, owners/managers of that site might not necessarily owe a duty to address it or warn anyone of it if the risk of injury is obvious.

However, there are some cases in which a danger is open and obvious, but defendant is still liable because of some special aspect of the condition that makes it unreasonably dangerous. In those cases, property owners would have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to address that hazard and protect patrons.

Here, trial court found once platter was given to plaintiff, defendants had no control over it and plaintiff had the opportunity and ability to protect himself.

While some may say a skillet of smoking, sizzling fajitas was clearly a case of an open-and-obvious danger, not all cases are so cut-and-dried. Usually, in determining whether a hazard meets the criteria, the court will analyze whether the average person of ordinary intelligence would be able to discover the condition and the danger it presented just by casual inspection. Usually, the court looks not at whether the individual plaintiff in question knew or should have known the condition was dangerous, but rather whether a reasonable person in that same position would have foreseen the risk.

Here, plaintiff did not dispute there was some element of contributory negligence on his part, but argued on appeal that should have been a matter for the jury to decide. Appellate court disagreed and affirmed trial court’s earlier ruling.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Jimenez v. Applebee’s, March 4, 2015, Superior Court of New Jersey

More Blog Entries:
Olatoye v. Burlington Coat Factory – NC Slip-and-Fall Case to Continue, Feb. 25, 2015, Greenville Personal Injury Attorney Blog

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