Stitt v. Holland Abundant Life Fellowship

Decision Date18 July 2000
Docket NumberDocket No. 112217, Calendar No. 1.
Citation462 Mich. 591,614 N.W.2d 88
PartiesJill STITT, Personal Representative for the Estate of Violet J. Moeller and Gilbert E. Moeller, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. HOLLAND ABUNDANT LIFE FELLOWSHIP, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Giddy & Associates (by Ronald J. Giddy), Holland, for the plaintiffs-appellees.

Smith, Haughey, Rice & Roegge (by Lance R. Mather), Grand Rapids, for the defendant-appellant.


In this premises liability case the plaintiff, Violet Moeller, was injured when she tripped over a concrete tire stop in defendant church's parking lot.1 Plaintiff was visiting the church to attend bible study. Plaintiff sued the church, alleging that the defendant negligently placed the tire stops and failed to provide adequate lighting in the parking lot.

At trial, the jury was instructed on the obligations property owners owe to licensees. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the church. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case for a new trial after determining that the trial court erred by instructing the jury on the obligations owed to licensees rather than "public invitees" as defined in 2 Restatement Torts, 2d, § 332, p. 176.2

We granted leave in this case to determine the proper standard of care owed to individuals on church property for noncommercial purposes. We hold that the trial court correctly instructed the jury that such individuals are licensees and not invitees. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals decision and reinstate the trial court judgment in favor of the church.

I Factual and Procedural Background

On the evening of November 22, 1989, Violet Moeller accompanied her friend Pat Drake to defendant's church to attend bible study. Ms. Moeller was not a member of the church. Ms. Drake parked her car in the church parking lot. As she exited Ms. Drake's car, plaintiff tripped and fell over a tire stop, fracturing her left arm. Plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant church, asserting that defendant negligently placed the concrete tire stops and failed to provide adequate lighting in the parking lot. Before trial, the church twice filed motions for summary disposition. The trial court denied both motions, but determined that Ms. Moeller was a licensee and not an invitee at the time of the accident. The case proceeded to trial, at which time the judge instructed the jury on the duties owed to licensees.3 At the close of trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant. The court subsequently entered a judgment of no cause on the verdict.

Plaintiff appealed, contending that the trial court erred in determining that she was a licensee at the time of her accident. The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff was a "public invitee" as defined in 2 Restatement Torts, 2d, § 332, and not a licensee.4 The Court of Appeals acknowledged that this Court has never explicitly adopted the Restatement provision. However, on the basis of its reading of Preston v. Sleziak, 383 Mich. 442, 175 N.W.2d 759 (1970), the Court of Appeals concluded that this provision applies in Michigan and that the trial court improperly instructed the jury. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court judgment and remanded the case for a new trial. We granted defendant's application for leave to appeal. 461 Mich. 861, 602 N.W.2d 577 (1999).

II Standard of Review

As a general rule, if there is evidence from which invitee status might be inferred, it is a question for the jury. See Nezworski v. Mazanec, 301 Mich. 43, 58, 2 N.W.2d 912 (1942). However, this case presents the broader question whether invitee status should be extended to an individual who enters upon church property for a noncommercial purpose. This is a question of law that we review de novo. See Cardinal Mooney High School v. Michigan High School Athletic Ass'n, 437 Mich. 75, 80, 467 N.W.2d 21 (1991).

III Analysis
A. The Common-Law Classifications

Historically, Michigan has recognized three common-law categories for persons who enter upon the land or premises of another: (1) trespasser, (2) licensee, or (3) invitee. Wymer v. Holmes, 429 Mich. 66, 71, n. 1, 412 N.W.2d 213 (1987). Michigan has not abandoned these common-law classifications. Reetz v. Tipit, Inc., 151 Mich.App. 150, 153, 390 N.W.2d 653 (1986). Each of these categories corresponds to a different standard of care that is owed to those injured on the owner's premises. Thus, a landowner's duty to a visitor depends on that visitor's status. Wymer, supra at 71, n. 1, 412 N.W.2d 213.

A "trespasser" is a person who enters upon another's land, without the landowner's consent. The landowner owes no duty to the trespasser except to refrain from injuring him by "wilful and wanton" misconduct. Id.

A "licensee" is a person who is privileged to enter the land of another by virtue of the possessor's consent. Id. A landowner owes a licensee a duty only to warn the licensee of any hidden dangers the owner knows or has reason to know of, if the licensee does not know or have reason to know of the dangers involved. The landowner owes no duty of inspection or affirmative care to make the premises safe for the licensee's visit. Id. Typically, social guests are licensees who assume the ordinary risks associated with their visit. Preston, supra at 451, 175 N.W.2d 759.

The final category is invitees. An "invitee" is "a person who enters upon the land of another upon an invitation which carries with it an implied representation, assurance, or understanding that reasonable care has been used to prepare the premises, and make [it] safe for [the invitee's] reception." Wymer, supra at 71, n. 1, 412 N.W.2d 213. The landowner has a duty of care, not only to warn the invitee of any known dangers, but the additional obligation to also make the premises safe, which requires the landowner to inspect the premises and, depending upon the circumstances, make any necessary repairs or warn of any discovered hazards. Id. Thus, an invitee is entitled to the highest level of protection under premises liability law. Quinlivan v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., Inc., 395 Mich. 244, 256, 235 N.W.2d 732 (1975).

A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm caused to his invitees by a condition on the land if the owner: (a) knows of, or by the exercise of reasonable care would discover, the condition and should realize that the condition involves an unreasonable risk of harm to such invitees; (b) should expect that invitees will not discover or realize the danger, or will fail to protect themselves against it; and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to protect invitees against the danger. Id. at 258, 235 N.W.2d 732, citing Restatement, § 343.

The Court of Appeals correctly recognized that invitee status is commonly afforded to persons entering upon the property of another for business purposes. See, e.g., Nezworski, supra; Pelton v. Schmidt, 104 Mich. 345, 62 N.W. 552 (1895). In this case, we are called upon to determine whether invitee status should extend to individuals entering upon church property for non commercial purposes. Because invitee status necessarily turns on the existence of an "invitation," we must examine our common law in order to ascertain the meaning of that term.

B. The Meaning of Invitation in Michigan's Common Law

Unfortunately, our prior decisions have proven to be less than clear in defining the precise circumstances under which a sufficient invitation has been extended to a visitor to confer "invitee" status. On the one hand, several of our decisions appear to support the requirement that the landowner's premises be held open for a commercial business purpose. See, e.g., Perl v. Cohodas, Peterson, Paoli, Nast Co., 295 Mich. 325, 294 N.W. 697 (1940); Diefenbach v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., 280 Mich. 507, 273 N.W. 783 (1937);5Sink v. Grand Trunk Western R. Co., 227 Mich. 21, 198 N.W. 238 (1924). Indeed, several panels of our Court of Appeals have interpreted our decisions as supporting the requirement of a business purpose. See, e.g., Butler v. Ramco-Gershenson, Inc., 214 Mich.App. 521, 542 N.W.2d 912 (1995); Bradford v. Feeback, 149 Mich.App. 67, 385 N.W.2d 729 (1986); Leep v. McComber, 118 Mich.App. 653, 325 N.W.2d 531 (1982).6 The "commercial purpose" distinction is sufficiently recognized in Michigan case law that there are even secondary authorities that include Michigan among those jurisdictions conferring invitee status only on business visitors. See, e.g., 95 A.L.R.2d 992, § 4, p. 1014.

In contrast with the line of cases supporting a commercial purpose requirement, some of our earlier decisions are replete with broad language suggestive of the Restatement's "public invitee" definition, although the precise contours of the definition are difficult to discern. See, e.g., Polston v. S.S. Kresge Co., 324 Mich. 575, 37 N.W.2d 638 (1949);7 Sheldon v. Flint & P.M. R. Co., 59 Mich. 172, 26 N.W. 507 (1886); Hargreaves v. Deacon, 25 Mich. 1 (1872).8

Finally, there is Preston, supra which is internally inconsistent on this point. Preston was interpreted by the Court of Appeals as having implicitly adopted the Restatement definition of "public invitee." At the same time, Preston, supra at 448, 175 N.W.2d 759, quoting Cooley on Torts, appears to recognize the commercial purpose requirement associated with invitee status:

An invitation may be inferred when there is a common interest or mutual advantage, a license when the object is the mere pleasure or benefit of the person using it. "To come under an implied invitation, as distinguished from a mere license, the visitor must come for a purpose connected with the business with which the occupant of the premises is engaged, or which he permits to be carried on there. There must be some mutuality of interest in the subject to which the visitor's business

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