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Michigan Supreme Court Announces Seismic Shift in Premises Liability Cases

In a groundbreaking decision, the Michigan Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling that promises to reshape the terrain of premises liability cases. The ruling, arising from the consolidated cases of Kandil-Elsayed v. F & E Oil Inc. and Pinsky v. Kroger Co. of Mich, Docket Nos. 162907 and 163430, marks a turning point in how the state's courts approach "open and obvious" dangers in premises liability lawsuits affecting both personal and commercial policies.

The significance of this ruling cannot be overstated, as it overturns a precedent set by the 2001 Michigan Supreme Court case of Lugo v Ameritech Corp. Under the previous rule, property owners were largely legally shielded from premises liability claims if the hazardous conditions on their premises were deemed "open and obvious" to visitors. In essence, this defense acted as a barrier against many claims filed by individuals injured on these properties.

The Supreme Court's ruling introduces a new standard for evaluating such cases. Under this standard, all property owners and possessors (commercial and personal) are now entrusted with a duty to exercise reasonable care in safeguarding visitors and patrons against unreasonable risks of injury stemming from hazardous conditions, even if these conditions are blatantly apparent.

This shift implies that the open and obvious nature of a hazard will no longer serve as an impenetrable defense against premises liability claims. While juries can consider the obviousness of a danger when determining whether a property owner or possessor violated their duty of reasonable care, this characteristic of the hazard will not outright dismiss claims from injured visitors or patrons.

For example: Consider Heather, who visits a local grocery store on a rainy day and slips on a slippery sidewalk near the entrance, suffering injuries. Under the old "open and obvious" doctrine, the store might have avoided liability, arguing that the danger was clear. However, with the Michigan Supreme Court's recent rulings, the store's responsibility changes. While the hazard's obviousness remains a factor, the store now has a duty to reasonably ensure visitors' safety. The court will evaluate if the store took precautions—like warning signs or slip-resistant measures—to prevent accidents on slippery surfaces. This example showcases how the legal landscape's transformation emphasizes proactive hazard prevention rather than relying solely on the apparentness of dangers.

Experts suggest that these rulings might lead to a surge in premises liability cases brought before Michigan trial courts. Some legal experts point out that this shift could broaden the scope of liability for property owners who once relied on the open and obvious defense. As property owners adapt to the new liability standard, proactive risk management is very important.

We encourage policyholders to implement safety measures and maintain hazard-free premises which will lead to reduced claim frequency and severity. In addition, we are encouraging policyholders to reexamine their coverage needs. Commercial enterprises and personal property owners need to ensure that their insurance policies adequately cover potential claims arising from injuries caused by open and obvious dangers. Liability coverage limits should align with the new duty to exercise reasonable care to protect against unreasonable risks.

As Michigan's legal landscape evolves in the wake of these groundbreaking rulings, many questions linger. The full extent of these changes is likely to unfold over the coming years, making it crucial for property owners and possessors to remain vigilant and proactive.

As always, at Rathbun Insurance, we are committed to providing you with the most accurate and relevant information to ensure you understand your insurance coverage and rights. We will continue to monitor any legislative changes and court rulings that could affect your benefits and keep you informed through various channels, including blog posts like this one.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding the recent Supreme Court decision or your insurance coverage, please don't hesitate to reach out to us.