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Wilson v. BRK, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Michigan

May 30, 2019

KRISTOPHER WILLIAM ROBERT WILSON, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
BRK, INC., and R & C LAND, INC., d/b/a DIAMONDBACK SALOON, Defendants-Appellees.

          Wayne Circuit Court LC No. 16-008051-NO

          Before: Redford, P.J., and Markey and K. F. Kelly, JJ.

          MARKEY, J.

         Plaintiff Kristopher Wilson appeals by right the trial court's order granting summary disposition in favor of defendants BRK, Inc., and R & C Land, Inc., d/b/a Diamondback Saloon, under MCR 2.116(C)(10) in this action arising out of plaintiff's fall from a wheelchair when exiting defendants' bar. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Defendants' bar has a cement ramp that starts near handicapped parking spots, runs along the side of the building, and gradually slopes upward to a doorway, allowing access for physically-limited patrons. The top of the ramp meets the top of a separate stairwell, both leading to a single set of doors into the bar. At the door's threshold is a 3½-inch-tall, yellow-painted step that must be navigated by handicapped and non-handicapped customers alike. Plaintiff is confined to a wheelchair. After a visit to the bar one evening, he began to exit the establishment with a friend, who was pushing the wheelchair. As plaintiff went through the doorway and over the step, the wheelchair tipped forward, throwing plaintiff to the ground and causing injuries. Plaintiff had patronized the bar on three or four previous occasions, negotiating the step without incident with the assistance of friends.

         Plaintiff filed suit against defendants. Plaintiff alleged that the entranceway step constituted a barrier in violation of federal, state, and local laws protecting individuals with disabilities. He further asserted that defendants were negligent and grossly negligent for failing to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition, failing to warn customers about the defect or hazard, and for failing to replace the entranceway step with a ramp. Finally, plaintiff claimed that defendants had created a nuisance by allowing an inherently dangerous condition to exist, placing "those on the premises in a position of peril." Subsequently, defendants moved for summary disposition, arguing in relevant part that plaintiff's action sounded in premises liability, not ordinary negligence or nuisance, that the entranceway step was open and obvious with no special aspects, that there was no code or regulatory violation, and that the open and obvious danger doctrine applied regardless of any regulatory or code violation.

         In his response brief, plaintiff argued that the bar's entranceway as constructed with the step was not in compliance with MCL 125.1351 et seq., which provide for the use of public facilities by the physically limited and require barrier-free access. Plaintiff claimed that the open and obvious danger doctrine does not apply to a violation of a statutory duty and further maintained that the Stille-DeRossett-Hale Single State Construction Code Act (SCCA), MCL 125.1501 et seq., incorporated the Building Officials and Code Administrators International, Inc., Manual (BOCA code) pursuant to MCL 125.1504(2), and that the BOCA code required, before the bar's construction in 1977, that at least one entranceway to a public facility be handicap accessible. Additionally, plaintiff claimed that the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PDCRA), MCL 37.1101 et seq., was implicated and violated.[1] Plaintiff also contended that the step was effectively unavoidable because the step was located at the only entrance/exit point available to a wheelchair-bound patron. Finally, plaintiff argued that some of his claims sounded in ordinary negligence and nuisance, not premises liability, and that the open and obvious danger doctrine does not apply to ordinary negligence and nuisance claims.

         The trial court heard defendants' motion for summary disposition and took the matter under advisement. The court later issued a written opinion and order granting defendants summary disposition. The trial court ruled that the case sounded in premises liability, not ordinary negligence, that the step was open and obvious, that there were no special aspects of the step that would avoid application of the open and obvious danger doctrine, and that "[a]ny alleged violation of the building code . . . does not negate the application of the open and obvious doctrine." The court also noted that there was no evidence that the entranceway step had ever been found to be in violation of a statute or building code. Indeed, the trial court explained that defendants presented undisputed evidence that the building had been inspected and approved by state and local authorities several times since its construction in 1977 and had never been cited for a violation. Plaintiff appeals by right.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This Court reviews de novo a trial court's ruling on a motion for summary disposition. Loweke v. Ann Arbor Ceiling & Partition Co, LLC, 489 Mich. 157, 162; 809 N.W.2d 553 (2011). We also review de novo issues of statutory construction. Estes v. Titus, 481 Mich. 573, 578-579; 751 N.W.2d 493 (2008).

         B. ORDINARY NEGLIGENCE VERSUS PREMISES LIABILITY

         Plaintiff maintains that defendants engaged in ordinary negligence by directing physically-limited invitees to use the entrance where a customer would be forced to encounter the 3½-inch step or threshold. Plaintiff states that the ramp, which defendants knew would be used for handicap access to the business, leads directly to the problematic entranceway. We note that plaintiff does not present any appellate argument attempting to resurrect his nuisance claim.

         "It is well settled that the gravamen of an action is determined by reading the complaint as a whole, and by looking beyond mere procedural labels to determine the exact nature of the claim." Adams v. Adams (On Reconsideration), 276 Mich.App. 704, 710-711; 742 N.W.2d 399 (2007). "Michigan law distinguishes between claims arising from ordinary negligence and claims premised on a condition of the land." Buhalis v. Trinity Continuing Care Servs, 296 Mich.App. 685, 692; 822 N.W.2d 254 (2012). "If the plaintiff's injury arose from an allegedly dangerous condition on the land, the action sounds in premises liability rather than ordinary negligence; this is true even when the plaintiff alleges that the premises possessor created the condition giving rise to the plaintiff's injury." Id.; see also Compau v. Pioneer Resource Co, LLC, 498 Mich. 928; 871 N.W.2d 210 (2015). The open and obvious danger doctrine is inapplicable to a claim of ordinary negligence. Laier v. Kitchen, 266 Mich.App. 482, 484; 702 N.W.2d 199 (2005). "A plaintiff cannot avoid the open and obvious danger doctrine by claiming ordinary negligence when the facts only support a premises liability claim[.]" Jahnke v. Allen, 308 Mich.App. 472, 476; 865 N.W.2d 49 (2014).

         Plaintiff's lawsuit ultimately concerns an injury arising from an allegedly dangerous condition on the land, i.e., a step that must be navigated by physically-limited patrons in order to enter and exit the bar. Plaintiff's effort to frame a portion of his complaint as alleging ordinary negligence is strained. Plaintiff is essentially arguing that defendants created the dangerous condition by directing handicapped customers to use the step. This characterization, however, does not suffice to defeat the fact that this is a premises liability action. Buhalis, 296 Mich.App. at 692. The trial court did not err in ruling that the portions of the complaint that plaintiff asserts sound in ordinary negligence actually sound in premises liability.

         C. SPECIAL ASPECTS - EFFECTIVELY UNAVOIDABLE PRONG

         Plaintiff next contends that the entranceway step, which constituted a barrier to invitees using a wheelchair, was effectively unavoidable because the doorway was the only one that a wheelchair-bound customer could use to exit the establishment.

         An exception to the duty owed for open and obvious dangers arises when special aspects of a condition make even an open and obvious risk unreasonable. Hoffner v. Lanctoe, 492 Mich. 450, 461; 821 N.W.2d 88 (2012).[2] Special aspects exist when an open and obvious hazard remains unreasonably dangerous or when it is effectively unavoidable. Id. at 461-463. The Hoffner Court further explained:

[W]hen confronted with an issue concerning an open and obvious hazard, Michigan courts should hew closely to the principles previously discussed. It bears repeating that exceptions to the open and obvious doctrine are narrow and designed to permit liability for such dangers only in limited, extreme situations. Thus, an "unreasonably dangerous" hazard must be just that-not just a dangerous hazard, but one that is unreasonably so. And it must be more than theoretically or retrospectively dangerous, because even the most unassuming situation can often be dangerous under the wrong set of circumstances. An "effectively unavoidable" hazard must truly be, for all practical purposes, one that a person is required to confront under the circumstances. A general interest in using, or even a contractual right to use, a business's services simply does not equate with a compulsion to confront a hazard and does not rise to the level of a "special aspect" characterized by its unreasonable risk of harm. [Id. at 472-473 (citations omitted).]

         Plaintiff analogizes his case to the hypothetical "special aspect" situation given in Lugo v. Ameritech Corp, Inc, 464 Mich. 512, 518; 629 N.W.2d 384 (2001), wherein the Supreme Court stated:

An illustration of such a situation might involve, for example, a commercial building with only one exit for the general public where the floor is covered with standing water. While the condition is open and obvious, a customer wishing to exit the store must leave the store through the water. ...

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