Michigan Supreme Court Clarifies “Open and Obvious” Doctrine and the “Special Aspects” Exception Where Plaintiff Fell on Observable Snow and Ice at the Sole Entrance to a Business

This case, released yesterday, clarifies the parameters of the “special aspects” / “unreasonably dangerous” / “unavoidable condition” exception to the “open and obvious” doctrine the latter of which bars an invitee from suing a premises owner if the invitee is injured as the result of an “open and obvious” dangerous condition on the premises owner’s property.

Here, the plaintiff was a member of a fitness club in a building occupied by several tenants.  There was only one entrance to the building.  Plaintiff was injured on what she admitted was observable snow and ice on the sidewalk leading to the entrance.  She filed suit against the fitness center tenants and the owners.

The trial court denied summary disposition to all defendants.  The trial court ruled that because there was only one access point to the building and because plaintiff had a contractual right to enter the facility and use the equipment therein, the “open and obvious” hazard of snow and ice was unavoidable.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of summary disposition to the landowners and reversed as to the tenant, ruling, with respect to the latter that they did not have control over the premises at the time of Plaintiff’s injury.

The Michigan Supreme Court reversed, explaining that the”special aspects” / “unreasonably dangerous” / “unavoidable condition” exception to the “open and obvious” exception to premises liability did not apply.

The Court noted that in Michigan, a premises owner owes a duty to take reasonable care to protect invitees from an unreasonable risk of harm caused by dangerous conditions on the premises, including snow and ice conditions.  However, as explained, the law does not impose liability for injuries occasioned by “open and obvious” dangerous conditions, unless special aspects of the condition make even an open and obvious condition unreasonably dangerous.  This “special aspects” doctrine includes situations in which it is effectively unavoidable for an invitee to avoid a hazard posed by such an inherently dangerous condition.

The Court concluded that the “open and obvious” condition did not pose any special aspect such that the plaintiff could proceed with her cause of action.  The Court reiterated that premises owners are not absolute insurers of the safety of their invitees and were not expected to make their premises perfect and make ordinary conditions encountered foolproof.  This, the Court reasoned, was complemented by the corollary principle that each person is responsible to take reasonable care for their own safety.  The Court concludes that the “open and obvious” condition of ice and snow on the entrance to the premises owner’s building is not one with any “special aspects” such that the “open and obvious” doctrine would be vitiated.

The case provides a good background of the state of the law for premises owner liability.  I attach it here:

Hoffner v. Lanctoe

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