Woman who fell entering gym can sue the property owner
Charlotte Hoffner and Blue Cross sued Richard and Lori Lanctot, the owners of the commercial building, and Hoffner's gym, "Fitness Xpress," after Hoffner fell on the sidewalk approach to the gym's only entrance. Hoffner confirmed that she saw glare ice as she approached the door, but thought she could negotiate it safely because she was a "UPer" accustomed to winter, she was wearing good boots and she was being careful. She was wrong, obviously, or we wouldn't be discussing her.
Her lawsuit against the gym and the commercial building owner ended up in the appellate court after the trial judge ruled that none of the defendants was entitled to summary disposition. On appeal, the higher court reversed part of the ruling and affirmed the remainder.
The Court of Appeals ruled that since the gym did not have "possession or control" of the sidewalk and wasn't responsible for snow and ice removal, it should be dismissed. The Court noted that the building owner was responsible for these duties in the lease and the sidewalk served several commercial entities in the building: therefore the landlord was in possession and control and was the only party who could potentially have "premises liability."
The landlords also argued that they should be dismissed, on the theory that Hoffner signed a release when she joined the gym that arguably waived any potential claim against any party if the claim arose out of her use of the gym equipment and facilities. The Appellate Court noted that this type of language can be enforced, however, in this case there was an understandable ambiguity about whether the language was intended by the parties to apply for the benefit of a third-party whose liability arose from negligence in maintaining the exterior sidewalk.
Lastly, the landlords argued that since Hoffner could have walked away when she saw the ice, the landlords were relieved of a premises' occupiers' duty to render the hazard safe. They suggested that the "ability to leave" and go to another location for services made the hazard avoidable. The Court relied on another precedent, involving injury at a gas station, to reject this argument. As the Court noted, Hoffner had paid to use THIS facility--presumably for health reasons--and had a right to exercise her commercial invitation. Since this was the only entrance to the facility, the landlord's duty to maintain it was not eliminated by the "open and obvious" nature of the hazard.