Appellate Court Ruling 'Potentially Dangerous' for Premises Owners

In a recent premises liability case, a panel from the Michigan Court of Appeals created questions of fact related to the open and obvious doctrine. It also included other potential defenses to a premises claim of this nature, finding questions of fact across the board, thus reversing the trial court that had granted summary disposition. 

This is a potentially dangerous case for the defense of such claims.

Specifically, the appellate court held that a defendant bar owner failed to present evidence that would establish it did not have actual or constructive notice of a hazard. Additionally, the appellate court held that the trial court erred in its determination of causation and that the defendant failed to establish that the condition was open and obvious.

The relevant facts are as follows:

The plaintiff and her friends arrived at the bar at 12:30 am on March 17, 2013. It was snowing that night, and the plaintiff’s friend testified that the steps to go to the upstairs bar were very wet from smokers tracking snow inside the bar. The plaintiff subsequently used the staircase in order to exit the bar to smoke and fell on the stairs while leaving for the night.   

The bar owner moved for summary disposition, arguing that the claim should be dismissed because the plaintiff could not identify what caused her fall and could not prove that the defendant had actual or constructive notice that any dangerous condition may have existed. Furthermore, the defendant maintained that even if a dangerous condition existed, no duty was owed to the plaintiff as the condition was open and obvious. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary disposition and the plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s grant of summary disposition for several reasons. First, with respect to actual or constructive notice, the appellate court held that the defendant failed to produce evidence regarding the reasonableness of its method for inspecting the premises on the night in question, did not present evidence as to the weather conditions, how busy the bar was at the time of the incident, or even whether its employees used the stairs that night. 

With respect to the open and obvious doctrine, the appellate court held that the defendant’s reliance upon the fact that other courts have held that steps and water under other circumstances amounted to an open and obvious hazard was insufficient to establish that reasonable people could not differ as to the character of the hazard at issue in this case. 

Finally, the appellate court reversed the trial court's grant of summary disposition based upon the plaintiff’s inability to prove causation, holding that there was substantial evidence from which a jury might conclude that, but for the defendant’s failure to rectify the wet condition of the stairs, the plaintiff would not have been injured.

We will continue to monitor this case to see if it is appealed and accepted by the Michigan Supreme Court.

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