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Woman can't sue for fall over desk mat in dentist's hallway; limited vision is admissible

Verlena Sexton-Walker fell in the hallway of the Great Expressions Dental Center office.  The hallway was well lit and Sexton-Walker watched a dental assistant step on, and then over, a plastic desk mat that had been left in the hallway.  Unfortunatelly when Sexton-Walker attempted to walk over it, she stumbled and fell suffering injury.  She brought a claim against the dentists' insurer.  We can presume that the dentists' expressions weren't so great when they were told of the claim, since their insurer declined it.

The trial court dismissed the woman's claim, holding that the desk mat was an "open and obvious" danger.  The judge also held that while a fall victim's eyesight is irrelevant to the issue of "open and obvious" [because the standard is an objective one--applied even to the blind woman using the handicapped bathroom at Home Depot, the court said] he would allow the dentists' insurer to admit evidence of the plaintiff's vision defect.

On appeal the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.  It deemed the limited eyesight "relevant" despite the objective standard, meaning that fall victims are damned in all circumstances.  They are held to the standard of a well-sighted person, yet any defects in their vision can also be used to support a claim that a fall was their fault. 

With regard to "open and obvious" the court held that even though the desk mat "was not supposed to be in the hallway," it posed no "special risk" of serious injury or death to dental patron invitees and was apparent on casual inspection.  Therefore the dental office was relieved of the pre-existing common law duty to identify and alleviate recognizable hazards.

This case stands as an excellent example of the shift in public policy in Michigan, with respect to personal injury and insurance matters.  Perhaps Sexton-Walker was careless.  Perhaps her injuries seem to be of a nature that don't deserve protection.  Perhaps leaving the desk mat in the middle of a busy hallway isn't really negligent and no one in the dental office should have moved it before business hours:  nevertheless, all of these questions were formerly matters for the jury to decide, before the so-called Engler Majority began "tweaking" the rules to protect insurance companies by eliminating the "reasonable" duty of premises owners.

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