Court overturns dismissal of claim arising out of fall on wet gas station floor
Helen Bialick fell and broke her ankle just inside the door of the Megan Mary, Inc., gas station in Oakland County. She testified that when she entered the gas station, she checked out where she was walking, but did not notice that the floor was wet. She claimed she fell on light-colored tile and only noticed that it was damp after she was on the floor. The owner provided testimony that directly contradicted his own interrogatory answers on several key points, but testified at trial that while customers had tracked moisture into the station, there were mats on the floor, and a warning sign was in place. There was a clear conflict of testimony on these key points, with the station owner's evidence heavily impeached by his own significant inconsistent statments. Nevertheless, the trial court had dismissed the case, holding that the owner owed no duty to Bialick because the wet floor was an "open and obvious danger."
The Court of Appeals reversed in a unanimous opinion. It noted that weighing the parties' conflicting claims about visibility, warnings and safety measures was properly a task for the jury. It reminded the lower court that in order to relieve a premise-owner of his duty to take reasonable steps to make the premises safe, the hazardous condition that caused injury must be one which "an average user with ordinary intelligence [would] have been able to discover...upon casual inspection."
The Court also rejected the insurer's argument that the victim's observations should be inadmissible. (On the pretext that the test of "open and obvious" danger should be an objective one, the insurer wanted to allow jurors to hear only its own evidence about the weather, the floor and the measures taken by the owner to address the tracked-in moisture.) After a decade of winning any arguments they made before the so-called "Engler Majority," Michigan insurers have developed an arrogant pattern of arguing theories that most reasonable people would find to be obnoxious. Fortunately, the latter era has ended, and the current Supreme Court (although still with a 4-3 Republican majority) is far more balanced and reasonable.