Supreme Court Ruling Further Limits “Special Aspects” Exception

Supreme Court Columns

A recent decision by the Michigan Supreme Court may have a negative impact on the ability of Michigan’s citizens to recover for injuries sustained in slip and fall accidents. In the case of Hoffner v Lanctoe, the Michigan Supreme Court held that ice leading up to the only entrance of a fitness center was avoidable because the plaintiff was not “absolutely compelled” to confront it, and therefore Michigan’s open and obvious doctrine prevented the plaintiff from recovering for her injuries.

The Hoffner decision could have a significant impact on the rights of individuals in Michigan and may mean increased danger to Michigan residents and visitors during the winter months. As the Hoffner majority recognized, ice and snow are an inescapable part of winter in Michigan, so much so that all individuals should expect to encounter slippery conditions during the winter months in Michigan. Along with these wintry conditions comes the increased potential for slip and fall injuries.  With this in mind, Michigan courts have long put the onus on landowners to ensure that their premises are safe for invitees. If a landowner failed to keep their premises reasonably safe and a person was injured as a result, the injured party had a remedy in the form of a civil action to recover for his or her injuries.

However, the decision in Hoffner now means that many of the most common slip and fall injuries will no longer be compensable. Despite acknowledging the inevitability of ice and snow in Michigan and the potential dangers that come with it, the Hoffner majority determined that such conditions are avoidable, except in circumstances where a person is “absolutely compelled” to confront them. While the majority remained silent as to when a person would be “absolutely compelled” to confront ice and snow, the fact that the plaintiff in Hoffner was denied recovery indicates that most common slip and fall injuries occurring in winter will now be precluded by this ruling.

This limitation on the rights of individuals in Michigan may also threaten the safety of people in Michigan as well. Effectively eliminating the remedy for those injured seemingly narrows the duty placed on landowners to clear ice and snow from their premises. Under Hoffner, landowners will only be responsible for removing ice and snow that invitees are “absolutely compelled” to confront. What this actually means is yet to be seen, but reducing the requirement of safety measures has the potential to lead to increased risks for Michigan citizens during the winter months.

Under Michigan law, a landowner generally has a duty to protect an invitee from unreasonable risks of harm caused by dangerous conditions on the land, including snow and ice. An exception to this duty is what is known as the open and obvious doctrine, which states that a landowner is not liable for injuries arising from conditions on the land that are open and obvious hazards – those which a reasonable person would perceive upon a causal inspection. The principle behind this open and obvious doctrine is that such hazards are readily observable and therefore do not present an unreasonable risk of harm to invitees. However, Michigan courts have recognized a “special aspects” exception to the open and obvious doctrine in cases where the “special aspects” of a hazard make it an unreasonable risk, despite the fact that the condition is otherwise open and obvious. Such “special aspects” have been found in cases where a risk was determined to be “unreasonably dangerous” or “effectively unavoidable.”

At issue in Hoffner was whether ice on the sidewalk leading up to the only entrance for a business was “effectively unavoidable.” The plaintiff in Hoffner was a woman who had a paid membership at a fitness club in a plaza owned by the defendants. One winter morning, as the plaintiff was attempting to enter the club to exercise, she noticed there was a patch of ice leading up to the only entrance to the building.  Left with no other route by which to enter the building, the plaintiff chose to encounter the ice in an attempt to access the fitness center. In doing so, she slipped on the ice and fell, suffering a fracture to her T12 vertebrae.  

In the ensuing litigation, both parties agreed that the visible ice on the land constituted an open and obvious condition. However, the plaintiff argued that her membership with the fitness club made her a business invitee on the land, and for the purposes of a business invitee the ice was “effectively unavoidable” because it blocked the only entrance to the fitness club.  The Supreme Court disagreed in a 4-3 decision, holding that the ice on the land was avoidable and that the plaintiff was therefore barred from recovery by the open and obvious doctrine. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice Young, the majority reasoned that an “effectively unavoidable” hazard must be one that a person is required to confront under the circumstances. In light of this definition, the Court found that the plaintiff’s contractual right to use the business’s services was not enough to compel the plaintiff to confront the hazard, and therefore the ice was avoidable. Since the Court found the ice to be avoidable, the plaintiff was barred from recovery by the open and obvious doctrine.

The decision in Hoffner was met with strong opposition from the dissenting justices, who perceived the majority’s ruling as a substantial blow to the rights of Michigan’s residents. Justices Cavanagh and Hathaway each authored dissenting opinions, both of which were joined by Justice Kelly, expressing concerns that the majority’s decision would effectively absolve landowners of any duty to clear ice and snow from their premises during the winter months in Michigan. In Justice Cavanagh’s dissent, he notes that the majority’s holding essentially eliminates a landowner’s duty to clear ice and snow from his premises, because rarely will an injured person be able to show that they were “absolutely compelled” to encounter the open-and-obvious danger. As an alternative, Justice Cavanagh proposed that Michigan adhere to the position adopted by the Restatement of Torts, which states that “a possessor of land is not relieved of the duty to protect or warn of known or obvious dangers if ‘the possessor should anticipate the harm despite such knowledge or obviousness.’” Applying that rule to the present case, the defendant would have known that invitees would confront the ice because it was blocking the only access to the business and would have anticipated that the ice was potentially harmful to customers attempting to access the business. Justice Cavanagh went on to express his concern that the “majority opinion creates an illogical and unworkable rule that will serve only to bar the courthouse doors to Michigan’s injured invitees.” In her own dissent, Justice Hathaway shared Justice Cavanagh’s view, but wrote separately to express her dismay with the majority’s departure from existing Michigan case law.