O'DONNELL v. Garasic

Decision Date19 February 2004
Docket NumberDocket No. 241341.
Citation676 N.W.2d 213,259 Mich. App. 569
PartiesBeth O'DONNELL, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Charles B. GARASIC and Elizabeth Thomas-Garasic, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US

Bredell and Bredell (by John H. Bredell), Ypsilanti, for the plaintiff.

Jonathan Shove Damon, Grand Rapids, for the defendants.

Before: WHITBECK, C.J., and ZAHRA and DONOFRIO, JJ.

DONOFRIO, J.

Plaintiff appeals as of right the trial court's grant of summary disposition in favor of defendants in this premises liability action. Plaintiff was injured when she fell down a flight of stairs as she attempted to traverse them in the dark while spending the night at defendants' inn. Plaintiff argues that defects in the stairs, stairway, and loft were not open and obvious, that there were "special aspects" of the condition that created an unreasonable risk of harm, that defendants violated standards of the Building Officials & Code Administrators International, Inc. (BOCA), and that the premises were not fit for the purposes intended. After reviewing the record we find the dangers associated with the stairs, staircase, and loft were open and obvious. But we find that the panoply of inadequacies in the aggregate, coupled with the necessary use of the stairs, stairway, and loft in their dangerous state, constitutes special aspects creating an issue of fact for the jury regarding whether the risk of harm was unreasonable. Plaintiff introduced alleged BOCA code violations to be considered as both special aspects for avoidance of the open and obvious danger doctrine and as support for the proposition that the rented premises were unfit for the purposes intended. The specific statutory duty imposed upon defendants by MCL 554.139(1)(a) and (b) preempts the application of the open and obvious danger doctrine at the summary disposition stage to defeat plaintiff's liability claim predicated for defendants was therefore inppropriate. We reverse and remand.

FACTS

Plaintiff and her friends rented a resort cabin owned by defendants. Plaintiff and other women stayed in a cabin where one of the beds was in a sleeping loft that had a low ceiling preventing adults from standing erect. The sleeping loft looked over the main floor of the cabin, and had a guardrail enclosing most of the open side of the loft. In between the guardrail and a wall was an opening where a set of narrow stairs connected the main floor to the loft. There was an upright pillar demarcating the end of the guardrail. The width of the stairs was narrower than the opening accommodating the stairway leaving an unguarded space at the edge of the stairs or stringer adjacent to the upright pillar. A tree branch was attached to the wall serving as a railing on one side of the stairs. The other side of the stairs was open from where it met the loft and extended to the last step at the floor. The loft was equipped with a light above the stairs that was activated by a downstairs switch. There was no matching light switch at the top of the stairs. There was a lamp located next to the bed in the loft.

After an evening spent in the cabin, when plaintiff was ready to retire to bed, she ascended the stairs to the loft and crawled into bed. The staircase was illuminated as she climbed the stairs. Once plaintiff got into bed, her roommate turned the bedside lamp off. A few hours later plaintiff awoke to use the bathroom. The overhead light had been switched off and the cabin was dark. Plaintiff got up, did not turn the bedside lamp on, and walked toward the stairs in the dark in a hunched-over fashion. Plaintiff reached the stairway opening and put her left hand on the wall and her right hand on an upright pillar that marked the edge of the loft guardrail. She then stepped down with her left foot onto the first step, searched for the second step with her right foot, but stepped into space and fell to the floor. She suffered serious injury.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

"A trial court's grant or denial of summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10) is reviewed de novo on appeal." Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Michigan Catastrophic Claims Ass'n, 248 Mich.App. 35, 40, 638 N.W.2d 155 (2001). "A motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10) tests whether there is factual support for a claim." Universal Underwriters Group v. Allstate Ins. Co., 246 Mich.App. 713, 720, 635 N.W.2d 52 (2001). "Affidavits, pleadings, depositions, admissions, and documentary evidence are considered in reviewing a motion for summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(10), and the evidence is viewed `in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.'" Universal Underwriters, supra at 720, 635 N.W.2d 52, quoting Quinto v. Cross & Peters Co., 451 Mich. 358, 362, 547 N.W.2d 314 (1996). "Summary disposition is proper under MCR 2.116(C)(10) if the documentary evidence shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Universal Underwriters, supra at 720, 635 N.W.2d 52.

ANALYSIS

To establish a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must prove four elements: (1) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) causation, and (4) damages. Case v. Consumers Power Co., 463 Mich. 1, 6, 615 N.W.2d 17 (2000). "The duty that a possessor of land owes to another person who is on the land depends on the latter person's status." Hampton v. Waste Mgt. of Michigan, Inc., 236 Mich.App. 598, 603, 601 N.W.2d 172 (1999). "The status of a person on land that the person does not possess will be one of the following: (1) a trespasser, (2) a licensee, or (3) an invitee." Id. An invitee is one who enters the land of another for a commercial purpose on an invitation that carries with it an implication that reasonable care has been used to prepare the premises and to make them safe. Stitt v. Holland Abundant Life Fellowship, 462 Mich. 591, 596-597, 614 N.W.2d 88 (2000).

Here, plaintiff was an invitee because she was on defendants' premises for a commercial purpose. "In general, a premises possessor 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). "With the axiom being that the duty is to protect invitees from unreasonable risks of harm, the underlying principle is that even though invitors have a duty to exercise reasonable care in protecting their invitees, they are not absolute insurers of the safety of their invitees." Bertrand v. Alan Ford, Inc., 449 Mich. 606, 614, 537 N.W.2d 185 (1995). The duty does not generally encompass removal of open and obvious dangers. Lugo, supra at 516, 629 N.W.2d 384. A condition is open and obvious if it is reasonable to expect an average person of ordinary intelligence to discover the danger upon casual inspection. Hughes v. PMG Bldg., Inc., 227 Mich.App. 1, 10, 574 N.W.2d 691 (1997). "[O]nly those special aspects that give rise to a uniquely high likelihood of harm or severity of harm if the risk is not avoided will serve to remove that condition from the open and obvious danger doctrine." Lugo, supra at 519, 629 N.W.2d 384. The Lugo Court illustrated that special aspects of a condition would include an unguarded thirty-foot-deep pit in the middle of a parking lot and standing water at the only exit of a commercial building resulting in an unavoidable condition because no alternative route is available. Id. at 518, 520, 629 N.W.2d 384.

I

Plaintiff argues that the defects in the stairs were not open and obvious because inn patrons would not be able to see them as they moved from the loft level to the main floor using the only staircase in the dark. The trial court found as follows on this issue:

The Plaintiff knew of the condition prior to going up there that night. She had walked up it. She was aware that there was not the desired dual light switch, and so that she was aware that unless she turned on the light next to her or the light was left on from below that there would not be light on the stairway. So I think Plaintiff loses on the question of open and obvious.

As noted above, the test here is an objective one. A condition is open and obvious if it is reasonable to expect an average person of ordinary intelligence to discover the danger upon casual inspection. Hughes, supra at 10, 574 N.W.2d 691.

We find that an average person of ordinary intelligence would notice upon casual inspection the overall layout of the stairway, including the narrow and steep stairs, their relationship to the low-ceilinged loft, the open, unguarded area between the loft guardrail and the edge of the steps, the open-sided staircase, the limited tree branch fashioned into a handrail, and the lack of a light switch at the top of the stairs. Plaintiff's argument that these dangers were unknown to her because of the darkness is not persuasive. Plaintiff viewed the stairs and the loft when she was on the main floor of the cabin earlier in the evening when the overhead light was illuminated, and plaintiff traversed the stairs when she retired to bed. Plaintiff had ample opportunity to take note of the apparent dangers.

Plaintiff admits that even in the dark she knew the location of the stairway because she was safely able to find her way to the stairs, locate the wall with her left hand, locate the pillar from the guard rail with her right hand, and locate the first step of the stairway with her left foot. Our review of the record reveals that reasonable minds could not differ regarding the open and obvious risk associated with the stairs, stairway, and loft. The stairs, stairway, and loft at issue presented a condition that, upon casual inspection, an average person of ordinary intelligence would discover any...

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