Two recent decisions by the Michigan Court of Appeals highlight the randomness that exists in Michigan slip-and-fall law. The two cases involve very similar situations, but the end results were very different.
In Ragnoli v. North Oakland-North Macomb, Inc., (docket no. 325206, unpublished 4/12/16) the plaintiff slipped and fell on black ice in defendant’s parking lot. The trial court originally dismissed the case, holding the black ice was open and obvious. Under Michigan law, premises owners have a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect customers from an unreasonable risk of harm caused by a dangerous condition of the land. The danger in this case was the black ice that had formed in the parking lot.
However, a premises owner does not have a duty to warn or protect customers from dangers that are open and obvious. To determine whether a condition is open and obvious depends on whether a reasonable person upon casual inspection would have discovered the black ice.
In the Ragnoli case, the plaintiff slipped on a small patch of black ice. She argued the condition was not open and obvious because this patch of black ice was obscured by a lack of lighting in the parking lot. The premises owner argued that even though the very nature of “black ice” is not obvious to a normal person, the condition was open and obvious because the weather conditions in the area, which included snow piles and cold temperatures, should have indicated to the plaintiff that a dangerous condition may have existed while she was walking through the parking lot.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, and reinstated the case. The Court held that based on the inadequate lighting in the parking lot, there was a question of fact as to whether the black ice was open and obvious. In other words, it should be up for a jury to decide the outcome of the case.
However, the plaintiff did not have such luck in Wareing v. Ellis Parking Company, Inc. (docket no. 325890, unpublished 4/12/16). In facts that are extremely similar to the Ragnoli case, the plaintiff fell on clear ice after parking her car on the exposed rooftop of a parking garage. After exiting her car, she walked a few steps and fell on ice that had formed from a small mound of snow located nearby.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, and in this case held the ice was open and obvious. The Court went on to say that although the ice was not visible upon casual inspection, the plaintiff should have foresaw the potential of a dangerous icy condition given the surrounding conditions (cold weather and nearby puddles).
The Wareing case demonstrates the difficulty of so-called “snow and ice” cases in Michigan. Given the current interpretation of the “open and obvious” defense, which has greatly expanded over the past 20 years, most cases involving a slip-and-fall due to a snow or ice condition are dismissed. Because the weather can get cold in Michigan and ice can form, individuals must assume the risk of walking through a parking lot or parking garage.
The Wareing and Ragnoli cases though also show how two very similar fact patterns can lead to very different results. In Ragnoli, snow mounds were also present near the black ice and the temperature was cold. The Court of Appeals could have easily found this condition “open and obvious.” In fact, it would not surprise me if the defendant appeals the ruling to the Michigan Supreme Court, which has been very supportive of dismissing snow/ice cases over the years.