Michigan Supreme Court Drastically Changes Michigan’s Premises Liability Law
Restores Michiganders’ Right to Jury Trials
Byline: Stephanie Arndt, Appellate Specialist
On July 28, 2023, the Michigan Supreme Court issued a decision that drastically changes how trial courts analyze premises liability cases. What is a premises liability case? When you are injured on a person’s property due to their neglect or a dangerous condition on their land, this is known as a premises liability case. These cases generally involve a slip-and-fall on snow, ice, or some other slick substance; a trip-and-fall on defective stairs; a faulty railing; or some other condition.
Traditionally, many of these cases would be dismissed by judges before a jury was ever able to consider the facts. This was because Michigan had a rule of law called the open and obvious danger doctrine. Under this rule of law, if the judge believed that the condition should have been seen by the victim, the case was dismissed. That is no longer the law. In this blog, we will explore the background of the open and obvious danger doctrine, the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling, and the impact it has on premises liability cases.
The Open and Obvious Danger Doctrine
The open and obvious danger doctrine has been part of Michigan premises liability law for decades. As mentioned above, the rule was that property owners were not liable for injuries sustained on their premises if the dangerous condition that caused the injury was open and obvious to a reasonable person. Basically, the property owners and their insurance companies would argue that visitors were responsible for their safety and should exercise reasonable care to avoid obvious hazards. This defense was frequently used by property owners and their insurers to get cases dismissed before a victim could present the case to a jury.
Over the years, decisions from our appeals courts carved out various exceptions to the doctrine (see our case study won on appeal here). These were for hazards that were exceptionally dangerous. This led to more litigation because it became increasingly difficult to obtain consistent rulings among the various courts. Additionally, the law became such that victims were being denied their right to a jury trial whether they saw the dangerous condition or not. This was especially true when it came to falls on snow or ice. The vast majority of those cases were decided by judges, who dismissed them simply because the victim should have known that snow and ice are slippery. This meant that owners’ shopping centers, office buildings, and even personal homes did not even have to plow snow or salt icy conditions – and they could not be held liable for the injuries this caused.
The Michigan Supreme Court’s Ruling
The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision is a significant step in undercutting the open and obvious danger doctrine in premises liability cases. The decision involved two cases: El-Sayed Kandil v F&E Oil and Pinsky v Kroger Company. The El-Sayed case involved a plaintiff who was injured after slipping on a snowy parking lot while walking into a gas station to prepay for her fuel. There, the lower courts dismissed the case because the snow and ice were “open and obvious,” and the courts ruled that there was nothing exceptionally dangerous about the parking lot. The Pinsky case involved a woman who tripped over a cord draped between two checkout lanes. She admitted that she would have seen the cord if she was looking at it but said that she did not see it that day due to the distracting nature of the store. Because she testified that the cord was observable, the Court of Appeals dismissed her case.
After undertaking a very thorough analysis of Michigan case law, the Supreme Court held that trial courts should no longer look to the open and obvious nature of a dangerous condition in deciding whether the property owner had a duty to warn the victim of the dangerous condition. The Court held that questions regarding how much negligence should be allocated between the property owner versus the victim should be decided by the jury, not the judge. The court emphasized that property owners should always have a duty to maintain safe premises and take reasonable steps to warn visitors of potential hazards, regardless of whether the hazards are open and obvious. Based on its decision, the Court sent both El-Sayed and Pinsky’s cases back to the trial court for a jury trial. This ruling will apply to all types of cases against property owners, including those involving injuries due to snow or ice.
Implications of the Ruling
- Increased Responsibility for Property Owners: With the changes to the open and obvious danger doctrine, property owners are now responsible for alerting those on their property of hidden dangers as well as those that may be open and obvious. They will also be required to take more proactive measures to prevent accidents and injuries and provide adequate warnings about potential hazards.
- Fewer Cases Dismissed Before Jury Trial: In light of the ruling, it is anticipated that fewer cases will be dismissed by trial judges. This means that more cases will be decided by a jury. A jury hearing your case will have to decide what percentage of fault to allocate to the property owner and what percentage of fault to allocate to the victim, if any.
- Impact on Insurance Premiums: As property owners face potentially higher liability, it is plausible that insurance companies may adjust their policies and premiums to accommodate the increased risk. This, in turn, may have broader implications for businesses and consumers alike.
- Shifts in Case Strategy: The ruling will lead to changes in the legal strategies used by both plaintiffs and defendants in premises liability cases. Plaintiffs may be encouraged to pursue claims they might have previously considered unwinnable, while defendants may focus on alternative defenses to mitigate their liability.
The Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling recognizes the important role of the jury in deciding who is responsible in a premises liability case. By recognizing the importance of a property owner’s duty to maintain safe premises and provide warnings, the Court took a significant step towards increasing accountability and access to justice for victims. While the full impact of the decision remains to be seen, it is clear that this decision will have far-reaching implications for those injured due to the negligence of a property owner.
Call Us for a Free Case Review
If you have been injured in the past three years due to the neglect of a property owner, the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision to overrule the prior use of the open and obvious danger doctrine could have significant impact on whether you have a case. Many victims who would have historically had their cases dismissed by the judge without a trial will now have the ability to have them decided by a jury.
Engaging the services of the experienced personal injury attorneys here at Christensen Law is critical in navigating the complexities of your case and maximizing the potential benefits of the ruling. Please give us a call for a free consultation or contact us.