Breach of building code by failing to install handrail does not create liability
Mary Todd sued the Rent-A-Center of Kalamazoo after she fell down the steps leading to the store's exit. The stairway was not equipped with a handrail, which is a violation of the International Building Code. The latter code was adopted in Michigan by the Single State Construction Code Act (SSCCA). Historically, the breach of a relevant local ordinance may be interpreted by the jury as evidence of negligence and the breach of a state statute is negligence per se, or in all circumstances.Nevertheless, the defendants' insurer argued that the store owed no duty to customers to install a handrail in the store--even though the store was required by law to install the handrail. The insurer argued that since the lack of a handrail was an "open and obvious" hazard, detectable on casual inspection, the obvious nature of the hazard eliminated any duty by the commercial entity to eliminate the hazard. Ultimately the Court of Appeals agreed with this analysis, apparently reluctantly following precedent established in another case.
The Court first noted that violation of a statute over-rides the "open and obvious" danger defense to liability, but that "open and obvious" in turn "trumps" violation of a safety ordinance. The Court also rejected a prior court's suggestion that the SSCCA was not promulgated to protect visitors and customers who enter property subject to the building code.
Despite the latter ruling, however, the judges concluded that adoption of the SSCCA did not provide visitors to commercial buildings with the protections of the safety provisions of the building code because the provisions in the SSCCA were not directly incorporated into the language of the SSCCA. If this sounds to you like so much sophistry, we cannot disagree. The Court in Todd specifically held that the previous court's interpretation of the SSCCA as "not [intended] to protect the public against harm" was unduly narrow and that it "defies sense" to suggest that occupants and users of buildings were not among the persons intended to benefit from the safety provisions of the SSCCA. It still refused to hold the store accountable for violating the law and causing an injury.