Mich. SC: Building owners not responsible for woman's injuries

Jessica M. Karmasek Aug. 6, 2012, 1:47pm


LANSING, Mich. (Legal Newsline) - The owners of a building that housed a gym are not liable for a woman's back injuries, which she incurred after falling on an icy sidewalk, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled last week.

"The ice on the sidewalk was open and obvious, and plaintiff has not provided evidence of special aspects of the condition that justify imposing liability on the Lanctoes despite the open and obvious nature of the danger," the Court majority wrote in an opinion filed Tuesday.

In this case, the plaintiff recognized the danger posed by ice on the sidewalk, but chose to confront the hazard in an "ultimately unsuccessful effort" to enter the premises, the majority explained.

Plaintiff Charlotte Hoffner had a paid membership to a fitness center, Fitness Xpress, one of several tenants located in a commercial building in Ironwood, Mich.

There is only one entrance to Fitness Xpress, which is serviced by a sidewalk that runs along the length of the building and connects the building to its parking lot.

The building, sidewalk and parking lot are all owned and maintained by defendants Richard and Lori Lanctoe.

Under the lease agreements between the building's business tenants and the Lanctoes, the Lanctoes are responsible for snow removal from the parking lot and sidewalk, although some tenants occasionally salt the sidewalk in front of the building.

On Jan. 28, 2006, Hoffner drove to the building to exercise.

Although the Lanctoes had already cleared and salted the parking lot and sidewalk earlier that day, by the time the plaintiff arrived she observed that the sidewalk was icy at the entrance to the gym.

Hoffner stated she could "see the ice and the roof was dripping." Despite her awareness of the conditions, she decided that the ice "didn't look like it would be that bad" and made the decision to enter the building. As she explained, "it was only just a few steps," and "I thought that I could make it."

She ended up falling on the ice, injuring her back. She subsequently sued the Lanctoes, as well as Fitness Xpress and its owners and operator.

All of the defendants moved for summary disposition.

They argued that Hoffner was barred from pursuing her claim of premises liability because of the open and obvious doctrine, given that the ice was plainly visible, which she recognized before confronting it.

The Gogebic County Circuit Court denied all of the defendants' motions for summary disposition, reasoning that there was a question of fact regarding whether the icy hazard was "effectively unavoidable" in part because a jury could find that Hoffner had a right to access the building to get value for her membership.

Defendants sought leave to appeal, and the state Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part.

It reversed the circuit court's ruling with regard to Fitness Xpress and its owners, holding they were entitled to summary disposition because they did not have possession and control of the sidewalk where the slip and fall occurred.

However, the appeals court affirmed with regard to the circuit court's ruling that the open and obvious doctrine does not bar Hoffner's claims against the premises' owners, the Lanctoes, because the dangerous condition was effectively unavoidable.

In its 31-page opinion, the state's high court called the case "unremarkable" in both its simplicity and its frequent occurrence in the state.

"Yet there has been some confusion surrounding the application of the open and obvious doctrine to wintry conditions," Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr. wrote for the majority.

"In Michigan, a premises possessor owes a duty to use reasonable care to protect invitees from an unreasonable risk of harm caused by dangerous conditions on the premises, including snow and ice conditions. However, liability does not arise for open and obvious dangers unless special aspects of a condition make even an open and obvious risk unreasonably dangerous."

The majority rejected Hoffner's argument that the hazard in this case was effectively unavoidable because she had a business interest in entering the gym.

"Neither the case law of this state nor the principles underlying the well-established 'open and obvious' doctrine support plaintiff's theory of an expanded 'business invitee' exception to the open and obvious doctrine, whereby invitees frequenting a business open to the public have an unassailable right to sue in tort for injuries caused by open and obvious conditions," Young wrote.

The case was remanded to the circuit court for entry of summary disposition in favor of the Lanctoes.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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