Irregularities under leaf-covered sidewalk are an "open and obvious" danger: no duty to clean up
DeShean Williams suffered a fractured ankle when he stepped on the edge of a sidewalk and fell while helping a friend move from the Holiday Ventures Apartment. Proofs showed that Williams stepped on the sidewalk edge, which was obscured under an accumulated leaf cover. He sued the apartment complex, alleging that his fall was caused by the owners' failure to maintain the lawn and sidewalk in a manner reasonably safe for visitors. The court dismissed his claim, holding that walking through a pile of accumulated leaves presents an "open and obvious danger" that "an average user of ordinary intelligence would discover [and avoid] on casual inspection. On that basis, two judges of the Court of Appeals concluded that the apartment complex owed no duty to clear the sidewalk.
Judge Michael Kelly authored a well-reasoned opinion in which he pointed out that this ruling represents an unjustified extension of the "open and obvious danger" doctrine. While the existence of snow may possibly be expected to warn of underlying ice, the mere presence of leaves provides no reasonable warning of a potentially dangerous condition that may exist somewhere beneath them on a pedestrian walkway. The judge pointed out that taken to this extreme, the open and obvious danger doctrine represents the re-adoption of the "assumption of risk" doctrine that the Michigan Supreme Court abolished decades ago.