A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues sent me a funny email entitled “dopey warning signs.” The gist of the story was how certain lawsuits led to seemingly obvious warning signs on products. For example, an exercise bike from Wal-Mart carried a weight restriction of 250 pounds following a suit brought by a 500 pound woman who sat on the bike and caused it to collapse. Similar silly lawsuits led to McDonald’s having to print “caution: hot” on its coffee cups and hair dryers carrying tags cautioning users not to take them in the tub. Obvious, right?
What all these suits had in common is they represent attempts by people to place blame for their own stupid behavior on others. A recent Minnesota Court of Appeals case, White v. Many Rivers West Limited Partnership, rejected such an attempt, this time by the parents of a toddler who tragically died falling out of his grandmother’s third floor apartment. For whatever reason, these parents concluded that their son died not because of grandma’s failure to properly supervise him and his brother, but rather because the landlord had not installed strong enough screens on the windows in the apartment so as to prevent a child from falling through them.
Whether such screens even exist are a mystery to me. Nonetheless, in the wake of the child’s death, and apparently in light of the fact that another child had previously fallen through a similar screen in the building, the parents decided that the screens were the culprit.
However, in the wake of the first incident, the landlord sent not one, but two letters to residents warning them about children playing near windows. The first letter contained the following:
This is a reminder that the screens on the windows are only designed to keep insects from getting into the apartment, not to keep things or people inside. It is very important that you do not allow anyone to sit in the window or to lean against the screens….
The second letter could not have been more clear:
We are asking the parents at Many Rivers East and West to keep their children from playing near open windows…. Please remember, the windows and screens are not designed or constructed to keep you from falling out, but to keep the unwanted bugs out…
Seems straightforward enough, right? In fact, my thought after reading these warnings was that the only thing more the landlord could have done would be to personally supervise all small children in the building to make sure that they were abiding by the above instructions. Such actions, of course, do not make practical sense; hence, it is hard to find any element of negligence in the landlord’s actions.
It is certainly tragic that a young child died falling out of an apartment window, and I am not making light of that fact. That being said, if his parents insist on placing blame on someone for his death, they need look no further than the grandmother who was in charge of watching him that day, and not the landlord who did everything possible to apprise residents of the danger short of watching the child.