Michigan Appeals Court Reverses Ruling for Defendant Maze Owner Because Dangerous Condition Was Effectively Unavoidable

Appellant Michael Davis fell and broke his leg while trying to avoid flowing water funneling down a sloped exit path from a haunted corn maze owned by defendant Jeffrey Lenhart. The circuit court summarily dismissed Davis’ premises liability claim, finding the condition open and obvious. In doing so, the circuit court rejected evidence that maze employees directed Davis onto the path as the means to exit the maze, creating a question of fact as to whether the condition was effectively unavoidable. For this reason, the appeals court vacated the circuit court’s summary disposition order and remanded. mud

The appeals court first outlined Michigan’s premises liability law, with attention to the open and obvious danger doctrine and its narrow exceptions. A landowner must use reasonable care to protect invitees from unreasonable risks of harm posed by dangerous conditions on his land. As a paying customer, Davis was an invitee on Lenhart’s land. Under Michigan law, a landowner has breached this duty when he knows or should have known of a dangerous condition on the premises, of which the invitee was unaware, and failed to fix or warn of the defect.

However, a landowner has no duty to warn or to protect invitees from dangers that are open and obvious. Typically, the public policy of encouraging people to take reasonable care for their own safety precludes imposing a duty on landowners to make the land completely foolproof. In determining whether a condition is open and obvious, a court asks whether it is reasonable to expect that an average person would have discovered it upon casual inspection.

The Michigan Supreme Court has recognized an exception to the open and obvious danger doctrine, called “special aspects.” Specifically, liability attaches when certain aspects render even an open and obvious risk unreasonable, such as when the condition is uniquely risky. Under this doctrine, the unusual open and obvious condition must be unreasonably dangerous because it presents an extremely high risk of severe harm to an invitee in circumstances in which there is no sensible reason for such an inordinate risk of severe harm to be presented.

An “effectively unavoidable” danger also falls within the ambit of a “special aspect.” The standard for effective unavoidability is that a person must be required or compelled to confront a dangerous hazard. Situations in which a person has a choice whether to confront a hazard cannot truly be unavoidable. Thus, a plaintiff must be effectively trapped by the hazard for the exception to apply.

The appeals court concluded that the condition in Davis’ case was open and obvious. Davis testified that he saw the water funneling down the path. His observation of the condition, the appeals court reasoned, was strong evidence that others would perceive the water as well.

Despite Davis’ argument to the contrary, the court found no evidence that this condition was so dangerous that the special aspects exception applied. Davis contended that darkness rendered the muddy and slick condition of the corn maze paths unreasonably dangerous. However, the appeals court reasoned that the very nature of a haunted maze is to frighten patrons. And flashlights were permitted in the maze. Davis chose not to use one himself, relying instead on his friends’ iPhones. When Davis fell, he had fallen too far behind for those phones to be useful. Lenhart, the appeals court reasoned, was not to blame for that.

Moreover, the wet, muddy condition was not unreasonably dangerous on its own. Rain makes the ground wet and sometimes slippery. This is to be expected. Nothing about this muddy puddle was so unique that it created an unreasonable risk of severe harm.

However, the appeals court held that Davis created a factual question as to whether the area of his fall was effectively unavoidable. In this regard, Davis argued that Lenhart failed to provide a means of safe exit and sufficient employees to guide visitors out of the maze when it began to rain heavily. Davis described that his party and he were essentially trapped in the maze for over an hour in the rain, trying in vain to find their way out. The record supported that employees were present and were actively assisting corn maze visitors toward the exit. However, the path on which the employees insisted that visitors travel was arguably unsafe.

Considering the evidence in the light most favorable to Davis, the appeals court held the flowing water blocked the only means of exit from the corn maze. The landowner’s employees sent Davis directly into the water. Thus, the appeals court vacated the summary disposition order and remanded for continued proceedings.

The premises liability attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent victims of accidents throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.

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