Speaker who fell off the back of crowded stage cannot sue Hotel
Norma Chesser was one of several speakers at an event held at the Radisson Plaza Hotel at Kalamazoo Center. After concluding her talk, she left the podium to return to her seat and "disappeared" off the back of the stage, injuring her shoulder. She sued the Hotel, alleging that the stage arrangement, positioning speakers in close proximity to a fall hazard without any railing, was unreasonable. Her attorneys presented the court with industry standards that had been violated by the arrangement and with admissions by hotel employees recognizing the continuing unsafe condition.The Hotel sought to dismiss the case by summary judgment, arguing that the potential of falling off the back of the stage was an "open and obvious" hazard which the Hotel owed no duty to address. The Plaintiff argued that the "open and obvious" excuse should not apply because Chesser could not avoid the hazard without exposing herself to embarassment and humiliation. The higher court repudiated the Defendant's claim that simply enduring embarassment or ridicule was not an adequate basis to render a hazard "unavoidable." Nevertheless, it ruled that since several people did safely negotiate the hazard prior to the fall, including Chesser on her way to the podium, it was "effectively avoidable." Therefore, the court overturned the lower court's decision and dismissed Chesser's claim because the Hotel owed no duty to make the "effectively avoidable" hazard safe. The breach of industry standards and the employee admissions of negligence would have been relevant to breach of a duty of due care, however, they were not relevant to the existence of a duty.
So this passes for sound public policy and justice? Prior to the Engler Majority taking control of the Supreme Court, the "open and obvious" exception to a premises' owners duty applied only in cases where an injured invited claimed that he should have been WARNED of a hazard: the owner still owed a duty to take reasonable steps to address the hazard. Under the Engler Majority's broader application of the exception, premises owners are completely excused from taking reasonable steps to avoid injury--even in the case of clear hazards that could reasonably be eliminated or made safe. Now, judges even feel empowered to take away the Constitutional right to demand a jury trial with regard to just how "unsafe" an "effectively avoidable" hazard must be: if a couple people have negotiated it without injury, the inevitable one who doesn't is without recourse.