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Owner owes no "special duty" to man injured while doing a "favor"

Joe Smith had worked as a handyman on the Brooks' farm and also hunted there occasionally.  In return, he often did uncompensated odd-jobs for the owners.   After bow-hunting one day in 2005, Brooks asked Smith to cut a threshold plate in the barn door and gave him a pair of "tinsnips" to do the cutting.  As Smith was finishing the cut, the threshold plate curled back violently and seriously injured Smith's eye.  Brooks' insurer denied that Brooks owed any duty to Smith or any compensation, and the Court of Appeals agreed.

Smith truthfully acknowledged that there was no "employment" arrangement or expectation of pay, and on that basis, the insurer and the Court held that Smith would be owed compensation only if Brooks assumed a "special duty" to him.  The Court held that merely asking Smith to do him a "favor" with a simple tool did not create any duty to Smith.  The Court distinguished this fact situation from the situation in Laier v. Kitchen, where the landowner assumed a duty to a volunteer who died after being asked to help in repairing a piece of farm equipment.  In Laier, the Court had recognized a duty to the victim, based on the relative danger of the task requested, whereas in the instant case, the Court found no duty by Brooks to control the performance of the task or to protect the volunteer.

Seems to us that the legal duty ought to follow the moral duty:  if you ask someone to do something for your benefit, you should be responsible for any untoward consequences.  That duty would then be compromised, if appropriate, by any fault of the volunteer in causing the injury, so that a victim wouldn't be compensated for his own carelessness.  In this case, though, it appears that neither man anticipated any danger in this task, and that Smith's negligence, if any, was minor:  the burden of his injury should have fallen primarily on the man who suggested the work, who benefitted from it, and who provided the tool to be used.

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