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Court applies Michigan premises law to "admiralty" law of the seas

When a person is injured on a boat in navigable waters, the so-called rules of admiralty apply to the case.  In effect, the rules applicable to navigable waters are subject to a different federal, rather than state, common law.  Nevertheless, pertinent state law rules can be imposed in admiralty cases when they do not conflict with the underlying rules.  Using this legal theory, a panel of the Court of Appeals grafted the "open and obvious" Michigan premises liability standard on top of the rules of admiralty applicable to an injury suffered on the Clinton River Cruise vessel.  

A woman named Geraldine Glod apparently tripped over the coaming of the hatch leading to the dining room of the vessel, suffering injury.  She claimed that the coaming design made the vessel not reasonably safe for the purpose intended (an appropriate admiralty claim). The Court steered clear of those troubled waters, however, by holding that, applying Michigan law, the coaming was "reasonably apparent" to a casual observer, and therefore even if it was not reasonably safe, the owner owed no duty to remedy the hazard.    This seems like a disingenuous way to avoid simply acknowledging that a reasonably safe doorway on a motor vessel includes a coaming to control water entry--as a matter of law.  Our opinion on this issue may not be unbiased, however, as we think the so-called "open and obvious" rule is an unjustifiable abuse of public policy and good sense. 

As inflated to its current status by the conservative Engler Majority of the Michigan Supreme Court, the open and obvious rule justifies failing to remedy a condition that is acknowledged to be hazardous, even if the condition has injured someone who is blind or has a different, legitimate explanation for failing to observe the hazard.  It has led to all manner of legal goobledy-gook in addressing whether an alternative means of ingress was available, whether a reasonable person would have put an errand off to another day, whether the injured victim has been exposed to winter conditions in the past, etc., while explicitly ignoring building code and other safety violations and citations, safe housing statutes, reasonable merchandizing standards, and numerous other relevant public policy concerns.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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