Summary of Olson v. Williams All Seasons Company

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law, and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal-injury. His column “Law and Wellness” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz.

A judgment was recently handed down in the case of Olson v. Williams All Seasons Company, regarding Olson’s appeal to a summary judgment granted in favor of the defendants in circuit court. This case involved a negligence claim made by Olson following a fall he sustained when responding to a fire alarm at the defendant’s building.

Olson, a Highland Fire firefighter, was responding to a “trouble fire alarm” at Williams’ building with two colleagues when the injury occurred. Within the building there was an underground storage area that was accessed via an 11-foot drop-off in the ground floor. The drop-off was guarded by a spring-loaded, double-door metal gate. Olson, who did not remember the actual fall, along with his two colleagues testified that it was extremely dark within the building. Olson, who did not have a flashlight with him, was searching for the “knox box” when the fall occurred. The two other firefighters were close to Olson but did not see or hear the actual fall. One of the firefighters later found the light switch located by the stairway to the lower level.

Summary judgment was granted on the basis that Williams did not owe Olson a duty of care to prevent injuries occurring in the course of his occupation and Olson could not establish proximate cause because no one witnessed the fall and Olson could not recall the details of the fall. The double-door metal gate that guarded the drop-off only opened towards the person opening the gate. There was a spring on the gate so that if the gate was opened it would close automatically. The investigating police officer, who inspected the scene an hour after the occurrence, remarked that when he opened the gate it did not close fully but only about halfway.

It was stated on appeal that “although no one saw Olson fall and Olson does not recall whether the gate was open, both pre-occurrence and post-occuurence witnesses at the scene provided sufficient circumstantial evidence of proximate cause.” Olson’s colleagues testified that the warehouse was “dark” and like “an abyss.” It was held that there was a proximate causal relationship between the injury and Williams’ alleged negligence. It was found that genuine issues of material fact were created and supported by sufficient circumstantial evidence and reasonable inferences that might be drawn therefrom. The court discussed numerous cases where there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to establish proximate cause between a defendant’s negligence and an injury sustained to a plaintiff.

The defendant’s attempt to argue the “open and obvious doctrine” also failed on appeal as there was a factual dispute as to whether there was sufficient light to discern the change in levels. The court also held on appeal that a landowner still had a duty to maintain a property in a safe condition to prevent injury to a firefighter who is inspecting a matter other than a fire, notwithstanding the common-law fireman’s rule. The court also held that there was a duty on Williams’ part to provide adequate lighting as it was reasonably foreseeable that an invitee would sustain an injury when searching for a light switch.

This well-reasoned decision means that because the victim of an alleged negligent act or those in the immediate vicinity did not see or cannot remember the incident, they will not be barred from seeking redress. The court will conduct an investigation into the pre-occurrence and post-occurrence evidence to establish if there is sufficient circumstantial evidence of proximate cause.

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