Riddle v. McLouth Steel Products Corp., Docket No. 89273

Citation485 N.W.2d 676,440 Mich. 85
Decision Date01 November 1991
Docket NumberNo. 5,Docket No. 89273,5
PartiesVance RIDDLE and Lucinda Riddle, his wife, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. McLOUTH STEEL PRODUCTS CORPORATION, a Michigan corporation, Defendant-Appellant. Calendar,
CourtSupreme Court of Michigan

Page 676

485 N.W.2d 676
440 Mich. 85
Vance RIDDLE and Lucinda Riddle, his wife, Plaintiffs-Appellees,
Docket No. 89273.
Calendar No. 5, Nov. Term, 1991.
Supreme Court of Michigan.
Argued Nov. 6, 1991.
Decided June 23, 1992.

Page 678

[440 Mich. 87] Chambers, Steiner, Mazur, Ornstein & Amlin, P.C. by Angela J. Nicita, Courtney E. Morgan, Jr., Detroit, for plaintiffs-appellees.

Garan, Lucow, Miller, Seward, Cooper & Becker, P.C. by Rosalind Rochkind, Matthew A. Seward, Detroit, for defendant-appellant McLouth Steel.

Mark Granzotto, Detroit, Monica Farris Linkner, Berkley, [440 Mich. 88] Charles P. Burbach, Southfield, amici curiae, for Mich. Trial Lawyers Ass'n.


MALLETT, Justice.

We granted leave to consider a premises owner's duty to warn invitees of known or obvious dangers and to determine (1) whether the trial court correctly instructed the jury that, pursuant to SJI2d 19.03, a premises owner must warn an invitee of known or obvious dangers; and (2) whether the jury instruction on violation of a safety regulation pursuant to SJI2d 12.05 constituted error requiring reversal. We conclude that the jury instructions given do not accurately set out the duty of a premises owner. Accordingly, we reverse the decisions of the lower courts and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Plaintiff Vance Riddle has worked with or around coils of steel for over seventeen years. At the time of his accident, Riddle was employed with W.T. Cartage Manufacturing Company as a truck driver and steel and general freight hauler.

In 1983, Riddle began hauling steel coils from defendant McLouth Steel's Trenton plant to its Gibraltar plant on a daily basis. Prior to Gibraltar plant delivery, the steel coils are treated to prevent rusting in a process called "pickling." Under this process, cold rolled steel is unrolled and covered with oil. The steel coils are then rerolled and placed on racks in a coil field 1 where the excess oil is allowed to drain. The treated steel coils are then loaded onto trucks and taken to McLouth's Gibraltar plant. Here, the steel coils are unloaded and [440 Mich. 89] stored on metal rails where they continue to drain until moved for additional processing.

As a consequence of the "pickling" process, oil drips and accumulates on the plant floor creating slippery conditions. There are no signs posted at the Gibraltar plant warning of the slippery conditions. While there are designated walkways around the coil field, there are no signs prohibiting McLouth employees from walking through the coil field. Sometimes the accumulated oil remains on the floor for six to eight weeks.

On January 19, 1984, the date of his injury, Vance Riddle and another truck driver, Charles Pfeiffer, were engaged in loading and unloading treated steel coils at the Gibraltar plant. Riddle was asked by a McLouth employee to deliver a box of computer billing cards to McLouth's receiving clerk's office before leaving for the Trenton plant. After unloading their trucks, Riddle and Pfeiffer cut across the coil field to the clerk's office. Evidence submitted at trial indicated that the path that Riddle and Pfeiffer took through the coil field was the most direct route to the clerk's office. Although steel coils were being stored in the coil field about thirty feet from their path, both Riddle and Pfeiffer testified that they did not realize the area through which they walked contained oil. Moreover, Riddle and Pfeiffer testified that they had observed a McLouth employee cleaning the area earlier in the day. While crossing the coil field, Riddle suddenly lost his balance and fell backward. His hard hat flew off and he hit his head on one of the metal rails and lost consciousness. Riddle sustained severe injuries, including a cerebral concussion, injury to the left shoulder and

Page 679

elbow, and back strain. 2

[440 Mich. 90] Vance Riddle brought suit against defendant McLouth Steel to recover lost wages, and his wife, Lucinda Riddle, made claims for loss of consortium. Riddle argued that McLouth breached its duty to exercise reasonable care and that McLouth's failure to warn of the slippery condition of the coil field was the proximate cause of his injuries. McLouth argued that Riddle had knowledge of the presence of oil in the coil field and therefore McLouth had no duty.

The jury awarded Vance Riddle $4,680,000, and Lucinda Riddle $320,000 for loss of consortium, but reduced the award after it found Vance Riddle thirty percent comparatively negligent. After trial, McLouth filed motions for a directed verdict, for a new trial, or remittitur. The trial court denied all motions. McLouth then filed a motion for reconsideration, which was also denied.

The Court of Appeals found no instructional error and affirmed the decision of the circuit court, 182 Mich.App. 259, 451 N.W.2d 590 (1990), and denied McLouth's motion of rehearing. 3

We granted leave by order dated March 27, 1991. 437 Mich. 929.


It is well settled in Michigan that a premises owner must maintain his or her property in a reasonably safe condition and has a duty to exercise due care to protect invitees from conditions that might result in injury. 4 Beals v. Walker, 416 Mich. 469, 480, 331 N.W.2d 700 (1982); Torma v. [440 Mich. 91] Montgomery Ward & Co., 336 Mich. 468, 476, 58 N.W.2d 149 (1953).

However, a premises owner's duty to warn extends to hidden or latent defects. Samuelson v. Cleveland Iron Mining Co., 49 Mich. 164, 13 N.W. 499 (1882). The rationale underlying this rule is that liability for injuries resulting from defectively maintained premises should rest upon the one who is in control or possession of the premises and, thus, is best able to prevent the injury. See Nezworski v. Mazanec, 301 Mich. 43, 56, 2 N.W.2d 912 (1942); Smith v. Peninsular Car Works, 60 Mich. 501, 504, 27 N.W. 662 (1886). This Court has held:

"Every man who expressly or by implication invites others to come upon his premises, assumes to all who accept the invitation the duty to warn them of any danger in coming, which he knows or ought to know of, and of which they are not aware." Samuelson, 49 Mich. at 170, 13 N.W. 499. (Emphasis added.)

Later cases carried this proposition forward. In Caniff v. Blanchard Navigation Co., 66 Mich. 638, 33 N.W. 744 (1887), the plaintiff fell through an open hatch on a ship being docked for the winter. 5 Because the danger was not hidden, this Court denied plaintiff a cause of action:

"The occupier of premises, no doubt, is bound, as [440 Mich. 92] to persons thereon by his express or implied invitation, to keep the premises free from, or give a warning of, danger to him and unknown to the visitor. But this rule has no application to a case where a person who from experience, through many years, in sailing a vessel, knows that it is customary to leave the hatchways of vessels open while lying in port, and whom observation teaches that they are liable to be

Page 680

open rather than closed, and are sources of dangers which he must avoid at his peril." 66 Mich. at 647, 33 N.W. 744.

Similarly, in Nezworski v. Mazanec, supra, the plaintiff sued for injuries sustained when she descended a darkened stairway on the defendant's premises. 6 This Court expressed the rule simply: "If there were hidden dangers in connection with the doorway, platform, stairway, and alley, it was [the premises owner's] duty to give warning thereof." Id. at 61, 2 N.W.2d 912. Thus, if the dangers are known or obvious to the invitee, no absolute duty to warn exists, and the invitee cannot recover on that theory.

This Court adopted the definition provided in 2 Restatement Torts, 2d, Sec. 343 of the general legal duty that a premises owner owes an invitee. In Ackerberg v. Muskegon Osteopathic Hosp., 366 Mich. 596, 600, 115 N.W.2d 290 (1962), we held:

" 'A possessor of land is subject to liability for bodily harm caused to business visitors by a natural or artificial condition thereon if, but only if, he (a) knows, or by the exercise of reasonable care could discover, the condition which, if known to [440 Mich. 93] him, he should realize as involving an unreasonable risk to them.' " 7

The plaintiff in Ackerberg sustained severe head injuries after falling from an unguarded rear platform at the entrance of the defendant's premises. This Court found that, despite the plaintiff's contributory negligence, there was a question of fact regarding the defendant's negligence that was appropriate for jury consideration, and reversed the directed verdict for the defendant.

In Quinlivan v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., Inc., 395 Mich. 244, 235 N.W.2d 732 (1975), we affirmed Ackerberg and adopted the revised Sec. 343 and subsections (b) and (c), which further define a premises owner's duty to invitees. 2 Restatement Torts, 2d, Sec. 343 reads in full:

"A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land, if, but only if, he (a) knows or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover the condition, and should realize that it involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees, and (b) should expect that they will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it, and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect them against the danger."

Quinlivan overruled existing case law which held that a premises owner owed no duty to a business invitee regarding obvious hazards arising from natural accumulations of ice and snow. We held that "[a]s such duty pertains to ice and snow accumulations, it will require that reasonable measures be taken...." Quinlivan at 261, 235 N.W.2d 732. 8

[440 Mich. 94] Finally, in Williams v. Cunningham Drug Stores, Inc., 429 Mich. 495, 500, 418 N.W.2d 381 (1988), this Court held that a premises owner is not an insurer of the safety...

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