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Status of hospital "companions"

    Michigan's Court of Appeals was recently required to address the status of persons who accompany a patient to the hospital.  In Dobrowa v. Sparrow Hospital, the attorneys for the hospital's insurer had asked the court to dismiss a case arising out of the malfunction of the hospital's electric door, on the grounds that the hospital merely "tolerated" persons who accompany patients.   Sparrow asked the court to rule that these persons are not "invitees" and are only one step above trespassers in terms of the hospital's duty to make the premises safe.

    The trial court and the Court of Appeals rejected this approach, at least with regard to any person who accompanies a patient in order to assist him or her.  The Court ruled that a "mere companion" would not be present for the Hospital's commercial benefit, and therefore the liability rules recently established by the activist conservative majority of the Supreme Court would preclude them from being treated as "invitees".   Thus, the hospital does not owe "mere companions" a duty to investigate and detect hazardous conditions on the premises.  On the other hand, if the patient required the assistance of the companion to drive, dress, or otherwise assist her or him through the hospital experience, the companion served a commercial interest of the hospital and must be treated as an invitee.

    While we applaud the Court of Appeals' recognition that companions providing assistance serve a commercial purpose for a hospital, we think that denying similar protection to members of the public invited to enter public places of business is dreadful public policy.   It is not too much to ask that public buildings be made safe for people invited to enter; persons who legally enter these buildings on reasonable grounds should be owed the same reasonable duty of care, regardless of the particularities of their invitation.  If the visitor is not a trespasser and the building is held open to the public, the owner of the building should owe a reasonable duty to identify and eliminate dangerous conditions.   Any other public policy discourages property owners from taking reasonable steps to prevent injuries and is a step back, two generations, in public safety.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
Toll Free: 1-800-678-1307
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