Court rules for plaintiff struck in head by door

By Lee Dryden
BridgeTower Media Newswires

DETROIT-A Michigan Court of Appeals panel has revived a premises-liability lawsuit from a truck driver injured when a door fell on his head when picking up a load of industrial waste to take to a landfill.

In Grias v. EQ Detroit Inc., the panel reversed the Wayne County Circuit Court and remanded the case, stating that "both the trial court and defendant erroneously focused solely on whether there was a defect in the operation of the rail door itself, rather than considering all of the surrounding circumstances."

"Rather the trial court should have made more general determinations as to whether the entry to the chemical fixation building through the rail door presented a dangerous condition subjecting invitees to an unreasonable risk of harm despite the proper operational functionality of the rail door," the opinion stated.

Plaintiff's counsel Melissa P. Stewart of Stewart Law PLLC in Bloomfield Hills is pleased with the COA decision because "it allows Mr. Grias to bring his claims before a trier of fact, where they belong."

"Beyond that, this decision is important, because it provides litigants with much-needed analysis regarding the special aspects exception to the open and obvious doctrine," she said.

The unpublished per curiam opinion was issued by Judges Jane M. Beckering, Stephen L. Borrello and Michael J. Kelly.

The case

Plaintiff Vasilios Grias was a driver for a trucking company, H&P Transportation, who picked up loads from defendant EQ Detroit Inc., which treats nonhazardous and hazardous industrial waste to stabilize and neutralize it before it is deposited in a landfill, according to the COA opinion.

On the day of the incident, the plaintiff drove his truck to the rail door, performed his safety checks, pulled the pull cord to open the door, and walked into the building to get the manifest. He was wearing his respirator, but not his hard hat. The rail door is similar to a garage door.

"After obtaining the manifest, plaintiff walked back outside through the rail door, and the door came down and hit him in the back of the head. He did not see or hear the door coming down before he walked back through it. Plaintiff testified, 'It hit me in the back of my head and it put me down to my knees.' Plaintiff never lost consciousness, but he felt dizzy and disoriented," the opinion stated.

The plaintiff was able to stand up on his own, pick up his load, and file an incident report before leaving the facility. He alleged injuries to his head, neck, and right arm.

He explained that he left his truck outside when getting the manifest because "they load really contaminated stuff" in the chemical fixation building and that when he opened the rail door that day, "it was really smoky," the opinion stated. He said he didn't want to risk striking anyone with his truck in the smoky conditions.

The defendant's operations manager testified that it was uncommon for a driver to get out of a truck and walk through the rail door.

Despite an engineer's report submitted by the plaintiff stating the rail door violated safety regulations, the trial court granted the defendant's motion for summary disposition, finding there was no evidence of a defect in the door or that defendant had any notice of a defect in the door.

COA analysis

The opinion stated that as the plaintiff alleged that a dangerous condition on the defendant's property caused his injury, his claim sounds in premises liability rather than ordinary negligence.

The panel added, "We concur with defendant that as presented, we cannot ascertain a question as to whether plaintiff was aware of the conditions presented by the rail door and the hazards inside the building, and these conditions were therefore open and obvious. But that does not end our analysis. Rather, the record reveals the existence of conflicting evidence."

"This conflicting evidence regarding the nature of the steamy conditions and degree of visibility on the day of the incident, as well as whether the combination of all of the hazards presented at the rail door entrance - a single entrance through a high-speed door that closed automatically pursuant to a timer and had certain safety features that may not have provided adequate protection for approaching pedestrians specifically, the potential for extreme smoke or steam severely reducing visibility while driving large trucks, and the presence of an excavator and hi-los driving around in the vicinity - constituted special aspects from which the trier of fact could conclude made the risk of harm when entering the building through the rail door unreasonable despite the open and obvious nature of the hazards."

The panel added that there are "genuine disputes of fact regarding whether there were special aspects presented by the nature of the rail door entrance and its attendant hazards at defendant's facility that constituted an unreasonable risk of harm despite that defendant's injury was allegedly caused by an impact from the rail door-an otherwise ordinary, open and obvious hazard."

Attorney comments

Stewart stated it is "encouraging to see the Court of Appeals reinforce the fact that although 'special aspects' is a high hurdle to overcome, there are, indeed, circumstances where a condition is so inherently dangerous that liability cannot be avoided, even if the condition is considered open and obvious."

She said the opinion is significant, even though it is unpublished, because it shows that the "special aspects exception to the open and obvious doctrine remains viable."

"What's more, with its focus on the totality of the circumstances of the premises, rather than the highly specific source of the plaintiff's injury (i.e., the rail door), the Court of Appeals has provided extremely helpful guidance as to the means by which a plaintiff should frame a claim arising out of 'special aspects,'" said Stewart, who added that she is the appellate attorney for the case and Steven P. Karfis of Zamler, Shiffman & Karfis in Southfield is the trial attorney.

Defense counsel Drew W. Broaddus did not respond to a request for comment.

Published: Tue, Mar 10, 2020