Law School Case Brief
Senogles v. Carlson - 902 N.W.2d 38 (Minn. 2017)
In the context of premises liability, when determining whether a danger is foreseeable, the court looks at whether the specific danger was objectively reasonable to expect, not simply whether it was within the realm of any conceivable possibility. What is objectively reasonable for the landowner to expect depends, in part, on the age of the entrant. Children often behave in dangerous ways and adults should anticipate that they will do so. There is virtually no condition upon any land with which a child may not possibly get himself into trouble. Children may, and do, do practically everything. Children, wherever they go, must be expected to act upon childish instincts and impulses; and others, who are chargeable with a duty of care and caution towards them, must calculate upon this, and take precautions accordingly.
A 4-year-old boy, S.W.K., wandered off during a family party on property owned by defendant Peter Carlson. S.W.K.'s relatives later found him face down in the Mississippi River. S.W.K. was revived, but he suffered severe brain damage from the near-drowning. Plaintiff Amanda Senogles, as parent and guardian of S.W.K., filed a lawsuit against Carlson in Minnesota state court alleging that, as the landowner, Carlson violated his duty of care to his invitee, S.W.K. The district court granted Carlson's motion for summary judgment on the ground that the harm to Shawn was not foreseeable to Carlson. On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment on a different ground: that Carlson was not liable because the danger was "obvious" to S.W.K. Senogles appealed.
Was summary judgment properly granted to Carlson?
The state supreme court reversed the appellate court's judgment and remanded the matter to the district court for further proceedings. The court observed that the record contained no information that it was obvious to an objectively reasonable four-year-old that, having already been swimming, returning to swim alone in the Mississippi River was dangerous. There was a genuine issue regarding whether S.K.W. should have known of the danger posed by swimming unsupervised, as the parties disputed his prior swimming experience. The court declined to adopt a categorical rule that the danger of swimming unattended in any Minnesota river, lake, or pool is necessarily obvious to all children, no matter how young and inexperienced. The facts and reasonable inferences from them made the issue of foreseeability a close one to be decided by a jury.
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