The United States Court of Appeals issued a wonderful opinion last week that covered Michigan premises law and Michigan slip and fall law. In a published decision, the 6th Circuit, which is the level right below the United State Supreme Court, denied a motion by a defendant to dismiss a case filed by a plaintiff. The court held a jury should decide this case. The case is Matteson v. Northwest Airlines, Inc.
The decision covered the dreaded ‘open and obvious’ doctrine that insurance companies routinely use to dismiss cases here in Michigan. In this case, a woman fell at Detroit’s Metro Airport. She suffered a broken right hip and damage to her right rotator cuff when she fell on a clear substance within the airport terminal near her gate. The employees for Northwest Airlines knew about the spill prior to the fall and admitted they had not cleaned it up.
There was conflicting testimony about the substance Ms. Matteson fell on. Matteson testified it was clear while other witnesses testified it was light green or red. This is important because under Michigan law, if the substance was ‘open and obvious’, meaning an average person of ordinary intelligence would have been able to discover the substance upon casual inspection, her case would have been dismissed. So if the substance she fell on was green or red, and there to be seen, the substances is considered ‘open and obvious’ and her claim would have been dismissed.
The open and obvious defense has been used as a dagger by insurance companies for over 10 years now. They use the doctrine to state if any type of condition should have been found by the plaintiff before the incident occurred, the premises owner has no duty to the injured plaintiff and there is no case. The Michigan Supreme Court, in decision after decision, has expanded the open and obvious doctrine to include conditions and situations that are not open and obvious to an average person. This has resulted in case after case getting thrown out judges all over the state of Michigan. These cases have included ridiculous situations such as persons falling due to hidden ‘black ice’, holes covered by leaves and grass, and broken staircases – none of which were ‘open and obvious’ to the injured party at the time of the accident.
In Matteson v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., a panel of federal judges took a look at Michigan’s open and obvious law. What’s important to understand is that most of these cases are handled in state court by state judges. This particular case involved a federal court case and was handled by federal judges. Federal judges are appointed for life and usually are not as effected by the political pressures state judges face who have to run for re-election.
The panel of three Court of Appeals judges who decided Matteson v. Northwest Airlines did a number of interesting things in reaching their decision.
First, they noted the inconsistent ways Michigan courts have applied the open and obvious defense, with one court deciding a certain condition is open and obvious while another court will say the same exact condition was not open and obvious.
Second, the panel also looked at the definition of when a condition is open and obvious and what ‘casual inspection’ means. Too often, state judges have dismissed cases using the open and obvious defense even though a condition would never be apparent to a reasonable person upon casual inspection. The federal court here understood this reality, and held ordinary people do not inspect the ground before they walk on it. In essence, a clear spill on an airport floor is not the type of everyday occurrence that people regularly encounter. The court applied this reality to Ms. Matteson’s case and held the spill she fell on was not something a reasonable person should expect to see upon casual inspection.
Third, the panel properly applied the law. When a party attempts to dismiss a case, Michigan law has long held that the court must take the facts in the light most favorable to the other party. In fact, all reasonable inferences must be placed in favor of the other party as well. Unfortunately, Michigan judges almost always fail to do this. Instead of applying the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, they just accept the facts as given by the defendant premises owner. The federal court judges took the right approach, placing all inferences in the most favorable light for Ms. Matteson. In doing so, they assumed the substances she fell on was clear. This was important in holding the condition was not open and obvious.
Last, the federal court looked at the condition at the time of the accident, not after. Too often, state judges use testimony from individuals who looked at a condition after the accident to conclude it was open and obvious. This approach is incorrect under the law. The court here stated, simply put, Ms. Matteson put forward enough evidence to suggest the substance was not open and obvious at the time of her accident.
Bravo for this court’s sound legal reasoning. Now if only more Michigan trial judges utilized this approach to Michigan premises law!