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Kids hurt when I-beam falls in entryway of library can sue township operator

The K.I. Sawyer Learning Center was owned by Forsyth Township in Marquette County and rented to West Branch Township for operation of a public library. An adjacent Sawyer building was used for recreational activities, and Emily Tellin, Matthew Werfelman and several other young teens, after visiting the adjacent buiding, waited for their parents to pick them up under the entryway of the library.  One of the girls swung on a steel bar in the entryway and the I-beam structure that reinforced the entryway roof collapsed causing injuries.   The kids' sued the Townships, by their "Next Friends," for failing to maintain the building in a manner reasonably safe for public use.

The Townships raised a series of issues in defending the claims.  First, it argued that the addition of the I-beam support several years ago constituted a "re-design" of the building and that public entities are not responsible for design flaws in public buildings.  The Court acknowledged that the Engler Majority of the Supreme Court had interpreted the public building exception to governmental immunity to exclude liability for building design, but noted that after the I-beam was installed, it was negligently maintained.  Since it had never been properly secured to the building, despite warnings that it appeared "wobbly," the Court deemed the Townships were arguably in violation of the residual duty to maintain a building in a safe condition.

Next, the Townships argued that the entryway wasn't open to the public and therefore it didn't fall within the duty to maintain the building in a reasonably safe manner.  They pointed to a sign in the window that prohibited "loitering."  The sign had been placed because of a problem with vandalism.  The Court noted that the entryway contained a book return that was open 24 hours per day, making the entryway open to the public.  It also noted that the kids, waiting for their parents for a brief, defined period,  were not "loitering" as that term is defined in the dictionary.

Lastly, the Townships argued that the warnings by a volunteer about the stability of the I-beam construction were not adequate to place them on notice of the danger of the entryway.  The Court made quick work of this defense:  since the condition had existed for more than 90 days, the Townships were presumed to have notice of the unsafe condition; further, they had actual notice of the problem because it was brought to their attention by a third-party.  Their allegation that they had failed to inspect the entryway and therefore were not "on notice" of the defective entryway was specious.

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