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Michigan Slip and Fall Accidents – Landlords Have A Special Duty to Tenants

Steinberg icy sidewalk

As the fall comes to an end as we head into December, winter is right around the corner. With winter comes slippery weather and Michigan slip and fall accidents. Slip and fall and Michigan trip and fall accidents can occur for a number of different reasons, ranging from a failure to salt and remove snow to the build up of ice on walking and roadway surfaces. Although Michigan slip and fall law is not easy, there are different avenues to recover compensation following a Michigan slip and fall accident.

First though, any discussion involving Michigan slip and fall accidents must also include a discussion of the “open and obvious” defense. Defendants in Michigan slip and fall and trip and fall cases, such as residential and commercial landlords or general homeowners, typically have the benefit of the open and obvious defense. This defense says a land owner does not have a duty to remove or warn customers of dangers that are open and obvious. In other words, if a reasonable person upon casual inspection could see the potentially dangerous condition, then the landowner owes no liability if a person gets injured from that dangerous condition.

The way the open and obvious defense is applied in Michigan, as opposed to other states, has greatly decreased the number of Michigan slip and fall lawsuits. In fact, very few slip and fall lawsuits are filed, with filings in the various Michigan courts down more than 80% over the past 20 years. The open and obvious defense has obliterated cases involving trips and falls due to potholes, slippery steps, tripping over product left out in grocery and retail stores, as well as other dangerous situations.

However, when living at an apartment complex or a single- family home, tenants in Michigan have special protections when injured on their properties.  Under the landlord-tenant statute, or MCL 554.139, a landlord of a residential property has a duty to keep the premises in reasonable repair and to ensure the premises and all common areas are fit for their intended use.

This statutory duty precludes the use of the open and obvious defense by defendant residential landlords. In fact, it actually does the opposite by imposing specific duties the landlord must maintain toward tenants.

This was illustrated in a Kent County slip and fall case the Michigan Court of Appeals released last week. In Schuster v. River Oaks Garden Apartments, LLC (docket no. 335246, unpublished, 11/30/2017), a tenant of an apartment complex slipped and fell on an icy sidewalk located on the complex. She specifically fell as she took her first steps onto the sidewalk near the complexes mailbox kiosk. As a result of the fall, she broke her ankle requiring surgery.

The defendant in the case asked the trial judge to dismiss the case, claiming the plaintiff failed to present evidence to show the sidewalk on which the plaintiff fell was not “fit for the use intended by the parties”, as required under MCL 554.139(1)(a). The trial judge agreed and dismissed the case. On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, allowing the plaintiff to again go forward with her case.

In reaching its decision, the Court relied upon the basic notion that the intended use of a sidewalk is to provide a dedicated walking path. Unlike a parking lot, the focus is on pedestrian travel, not vehicular travel. In this case, the entire walkway was covered with ice. The defendant’s own property manager described the area as “glistening glass” and that things looked like they were “dipped in glass.” As a result, the Court held the sidewalk was not fit for its intended use of allowing pedestrians, like the tenant, access to and from the complex.

The decision in the Schuster case is a positive one for individuals injured in Michigan slip and fall cases involving ice and snow. The plaintiff in the case is allowed to have her case heard by a jury. Other litigants in the future can use this case to show other trial judges in Michigan that similar situations permit them to go forward with their case as well.