Court rules for daughter sued by mom after fall

By Lee Dryden
BridgeTower Media Newswires
DETROIT—A Christmas Eve family gathering resulted in a mother suing her daughter and son-in-law after falling in the entryway of a home where she used to live.

In Newell v. St. Juliana, the complaint alleging negligence and premises liability cited the lack of a handrail in the side-door entry.

A Michigan Court of Appeals panel affirmed the Wayne County Circuit Court, which granted the defendants’ motion for summary disposition after concluding the plaintiff was “fully aware” there was no handrail.

The plaintiff was familiar with the home after decades as the owner and, later, a visitor.

“Because defendants had no reasonable basis to believe that plaintiff did not or would not discover or realize the danger herself, they did not owe her a duty to warn,” the appeals court opinion stated.

The Feb. 19 unpublished per curiam opinion was issued by Judges Mark J. Cavanagh, Stephen L. Borrello and James Robert Redford.

The fall occurred Dec. 24, 2014, while the plaintiff was leaving the home of the defendants, her daughter and son-in-law, via a side-door entryway. The injured plaintiff claimed the defendants “owed her a duty to warn about the lack of a handrail because its absence was a dangerous condition that posed an unreasonable risk of harm.”

The defendants argued that they did not owe plaintiff a duty to warn about the lack of a handrail because she was a licensee and “therefore, they only had a duty to warn her of any hidden dangers that they knew or had reason to know of which presented an unreasonable risk of harm, and that plaintiff did not know or have reason to know about.”

The trial court ruled for the defendants.

The appeals court panel pointed out that plaintiff was a “social guest at defendants’ home and, therefore, she was a licensee on the premises” and the defendants did not owe the plaintiff a duty to inspect the premises or to make it safe for her visit.

“They also were not required to warn plaintiff of conditions on the land that were open and obvious, as such dangers ‘come with their own warning,’” the opinion stated, citing Pippin v. Atallah (2001).

The plaintiff failed to present evidence that the absence of a handrail was a hidden danger, the panel stated. At her deposition, the plaintiff stated there was a light on near the door when she fell and there was no ice or snow obstructing her view.

“Plaintiff also testified that she was intimately familiar with the home from regular use over the course of many decades,” the opinion stated. “Plaintiff and her husband owned and used the home, including its handrail-free side entryway, for 40 years. After selling the home to defendants approximately 15 to 20 years earlier, plaintiff visited the home about once or twice a week without any difficulty using the side entryway that lacked a handrail.”

The opinion also stated that the lack of handrail was an open and obvious condition “obviating any duty to warn.”

“Based on witness testimony and photographic evidence, the area was not obstructed (e.g., no snow, ice, shrubbery, or ornamental objects), it was well-lit, and the geometry of the step and entryway were apparent for any reasonable person to observe and understand,” the opinion stated, adding that the plaintiff was “particularly aware of the fact that the entryway was handrail-free because she owned the home for 40 years and regularly visited the home after she sold it to defendants during which time there was never a handrail.”

Relying on Lugo v. Ameritech Corp, Inc. (2001), the plaintiff argued that a duty was still owed because “special aspects of the condition made the danger unreasonably dangerous and effectively unavoidable.”

“However, the ‘special aspects’ exception to the open and obvious doctrine does not apply to licensees,” the opinion stated, also concluding that the “absence of a handrail does not constitute an unreasonable risk of harm.”

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that defendants had a duty to warn her about the defective step.

“The photographs of the step show the irregular surface area outside the pathway used for ingress and egress. Furthermore, plaintiff testified that she fell because she lost her balance,” the opinion stated. “Plaintiff neither pleaded a step defect in her complaint nor testified that the surface of the step caused her to trip or otherwise played any role in causing her to fall. No witness testified that the surface anomaly had any bearing whatsoever on the injury event.”

The panel concluded that the trial court properly granted the defendants’ motion for summary disposition.


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