Buhalis v. Trinity Continuing Care Servs.

Decision Date29 May 2012
Docket Number300163.,Docket Nos. 296535
Citation296 Mich.App. 685,822 N.W.2d 254
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US


Cooper Law Firm, PLLC, Grand Rapids (by John J. Cooper), for Mary Buhalis.

Kitch Drutchas Wagner Valitutti & Sherbrook, Detroit (by Susan Healy Zitterman and John P. Hessberg) for Trinity Continuing Care Services.

Before: M.J. KELLY, P.J., and SAAD and O'CONNELL, JJ.



Under Michigan law, a premises possessor generally owes no duty to an invitee to warn of or protect from open and obvious dangers, such as ice and snow, absent special aspects. We hold that, for the reasons set forth below, the icy condition that plaintiff encountered was open and obvious. We also hold that, as a matter of law, if a premises possessor provides a clear means of ingress and egress and an invitee strays off the normal pathway onto an area that is obviously not reserved for that purpose, the landowner has not breached its duty of “reasonable care.” When a pathway for normal access is made available to an invitee and the dangers of straying off the clear path are, as here, open and obvious, the premise possessor owes no duty to warn or protect such an invitee.


In January 2008, plaintiff, Mary Buhalis, slipped and fell on ice on a patio near the front entrance of a building owned by defendant, Trinity Continuing Care Services. On the morning of the incident, Ms. Buhalis rode a large, three-wheeled tricycle to the nursing home to donate a bag of clothes. She parked her trike on the uncleared and unsalted patio adjacent to the main entrance walkway, which was free of ice and snow and covered by a large awning. After she dismounted her trike, Ms. Buhalis retrieved the bag of clothes from the basket on the trike and set it on the ground. She then picked up the bag and, as she started to walk toward the building, she slipped and fell. Ms. Buhalis offered conflicting testimony about the precise location of her fall, but receptionist Marlene Calcaterra testified that she saw Ms. Buhalis attempting to get up from the ground right outside her window, which is directly in front of the patio. At oral argument on appeal, plaintiff's counsel agreed that Ms. Buhalis fell on the patio and not on the cleared walkway leading to the building.

Joshua Shock, the maintenance technician for the nursing home, testified that part of his job is to remove snow and place salt on the walkways and entrance areas of the building. Mr. Shock testified that the sidewalks and main entrance walkway were clear of ice and snow when Ms. Buhalis fell. He further testified that he never salted or removed ice from the patios and that generally they were not maintained during the winter months. According to Mr. Shock, the large awning over the main walkway “performed as designed, in directing rain and melting snow and ice away from the covered walkway and entrance to the building, and onto the uncovered cement patio areas adjacent to each side of the awning.” Mr. Shock recalled that on the day Ms. Buhalis fell, there was visible ice on the patio in the area where plaintiff slipped. According to Ms. Buhalis, she was aware that ice and snow could accumulate on the patio, that the awning caused water to fall onto the patio where it could freeze and thaw, and that Trinity had posted a sign that cautioned “ SIDEWALKS,PARKING LOTS AND COMMON AREAS MAY BE WET, SNOWCOVERED [sic] AND SLIPPERY,” but Ms. Buhalis maintained that she did not see any ice on the patio before she slipped. However, Ms. Buhalis recalled that after she fell she saw that she had slipped on a patch of ice.

Ms. Buhalis sued Trinity, alleging various claims of liability. In Docket No. 296535, Trinity appeals by leave granted 1 the trial court's order that denied its second motion for summary disposition. Ms. Buhalis also filed a cross-appeal in Docket No. 296535. In Docket No. 300163, Trinity appeals by leave granted 2 the trial court's order that denied its third motion for summary disposition. The Court of Appeals consolidated the appeals. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for entry of summary disposition for Trinity in Docket Nos. 296535 and 300163.


We agree with Trinity that the trial court erred when it denied its motion for summary disposition on Ms. Buhalis's first amended complaint, in which she asserted that Trinity should be held liable for ordinary negligence. This Court reviews de novo a trial court's ruling on a motion for summary disposition. Ligon v. Detroit, 276 Mich.App. 120, 124, 739 N.W.2d 900 (2007).

Courts are not bound by the labels that parties attach to their claims. Manning v. Amerman, 229 Mich.App. 608, 613, 582 N.W.2d 539 (1998). Indeed, [i]t is well settled that the gravamen of an action is determined by reading the complaint as a whole, and by looking beyond mere procedural labels to determine the exact nature of the claim.” Adams v. Adams (On Reconsideration), 276 Mich.App. 704, 710–711, 742 N.W.2d 399 (2007). Michigan law distinguishes between claims arising from ordinary negligence and claims premised on a condition of the land. See James v. Alberts, 464 Mich. 12, 18–19, 626 N.W.2d 158 (2001). In the latter case, liability arises solely from the defendant's duty as an owner, possessor, or occupier of land. Laier v. Kitchen, 266 Mich.App. 482, 493, 702 N.W.2d 199 (2005). If the plaintiff's injury arose from an allegedly dangerous condition on the land, the action sounds in premises liability rather than ordinary negligence; this is true even when the plaintiff alleges that the premises possessor created the condition giving rise to the plaintiff's injury. James, 464 Mich. at 18–19, 626 N.W.2d 158.

Here, Ms. Buhalis alleged that she was injured when she slipped on ice and fell; that is, she alleged that she was injured when she encountered a dangerous condition on Trinity's premises. Though she asserted that Trinity's employees caused the dangerous condition at issue, this allegation does not transform the claim into one for ordinary negligence. Id. Rather, she clearly pleaded a claim founded on premises liability. Therefore, Ms. Buhalis's negligence claim is a common-law premises liability claim and, to the extent that she purported to allege an ordinary negligence claim in addition to her premises liability claim, the trial court should have dismissed that claim.


On cross-appeal in Docket No. 296535, Ms. Buhalis argues that the trial court erred by granting Trinity's first motion for summary disposition regarding plaintiff's premises liability claim because Ms. Buhalis contendsthe ice on which she fell was not open and obvious.3

“In a premises liability action, a plaintiff must prove the elements of negligence: (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, (2) the defendant breached that duty, (3) the breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury, and (4) the plaintiff suffered damages.” Benton v. Dart Props. Inc., 270 Mich.App. 437, 440, 715 N.W.2d 335 (2006). [T]he existence of a legal duty is a question of law for the court to decide.” Anderson v. Wiegand, 223 Mich.App. 549, 554, 567 N.W.2d 452 (1997). A “possessor of land is not an absolute insurer of the safety of an invitee.” Id. Generally, an owner of land “owes a duty to an invitee to exercise reasonable care to protect the invitee from an unreasonable risk of harm caused by a dangerous condition on the land.” Lugo v. Ameritech Corp., Inc., 464 Mich. 512, 516, 629 N.W.2d 384 (2001). Absent special aspects, this duty does not extend to open and obvious dangers. Id. at 516–517, 629 N.W.2d 384. Moreover, “the open and obvious doctrine should not be viewed as some type of ‘exception’ to the duty generally owed invitees, but rather as an integral part of the definition of that duty.” Id. at 516, 629 N.W.2d 384.

[W]here the dangers are known to the invitee or are so obvious that the invitee might reasonably be expected to discover them, an invitor owes no duty to protect or warn the invitee unless he should anticipate the harm despite knowledge of it on behalf of the invitee.” Riddle v. McLouth Steel Prods. Corp., 440 Mich. 85, 96, 485 N.W.2d 676 (1992). Indeed, there is an overriding public policy that people should “take reasonable care for their own safety” and this precludes the imposition of a duty on a landowner to take extraordinary measures to warn or keep people safe unless the risk is unreasonable. Bertrand v. Alan Ford, Inc., 449 Mich. 606, 616–617, 537 N.W.2d 185 (1995).

“Generally, the hazard presented by snow and ice is open and obvious, and the landowner has no duty to warn of or remove the hazard.” Royce v. Chatwell Club Apartments, 276 Mich.App. 389, 392, 740 N.W.2d 547 (2007). Here, Ms. Buhalis contends that the ice was not open and obvious because it was clear and she did not see it before she fell. However, if a “condition creates a risk of harm only because the invitee does not discover the condition or realize its danger, then the open and obvious doctrine will cut off liability if the invitee should have discovered the condition and realized its danger.” Bertrand, 449 Mich. at 611, 537 N.W.2d 185. A plaintiff may not recover if the condition is ‘so common that the possibility of [its] presence is anticipated by prudent persons.’ Id. at 615, 537 N.W.2d 185 (citation omitted).

In Slaughter v. Blarney Castle Oil Co., 281 Mich.App. 474, 479, 760 N.W.2d 287 (2008), this Court explained: “When applying the open and obvious danger doctrine to conditions involving the natural accumulation of ice and snow, our courts have progressively imputed knowledge regarding the existence of a condition as should reasonably be gleaned from all of the senses as well as one's common knowledge of weather hazards that occur in Michigan...

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