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The assumption of risk defense is still available when the claim is based on a condition of the land. This defense is called the open and obvious doctrine.

A landowner must protect invitees from hidden dangers. If the danger could have been seen or was seen, then it is open and obvious and the landowner must not protect the invitees from the danger.

Watkins, Jr., v St. Francis Camp on the Lake, 2010 Mich. App. LEXIS 1814

State: Michigan, Court of Appeals of Michigan

Plaintiff: Robert Vincent Watkins, Jr.

Defendant: St. Francis Camp on the Lake

Plaintiff Claims:

Defendant Defenses: Open and Obvious defect in the land

Holding: For the defendant

Year: 2010

The plaintiff was attending the defendant camp. The camp was run for people with special needs. The plaintiff suffered from cerebral palsy and was a quadriplegic. At the time of the accident, the plaintiff was 34 years old.

At the camp, a water slide was created. The slide was a 100’ long tarp, 20’ wide and placed upon a hill. Water was prayed on the tarp along with soap. Some of the campers used inner tubes on the slide; others just went down on the buttocks.  

At the bottom was a little ditch, 2.5’ long 2’ wide and 12-18” deep. The ditch had mud and water in it. When someone going down slide hit the ditch it would flip them.

On the day before the incident, the plaintiff had gone down the slide four or five times. He would ride down the hill on an inner tube with a camp counselor in an inner tube behind the plaintiff. After each ride, the plaintiff and tubes would be loaded on a golf cart and taken to the top of the hill.

The second day the plaintiff was injured on the slide during the flip, injuring his foot. He had already gone down the slide twice before his injury.

The plaintiff sued for his injuries. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint, and the plaintiff appealed.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The basis for the dismissal was the condition of the land that caused the plaintiff’s injuries was open and obvious. The plaintiff argued that this was a case not based upon the land but based upon the actions of the defendant. The actions of the defendant would set up a negligence claim. A claim based upon the condition of the land would be determined on the duty owed by the landowner to the plaintiff as an invitee.

Under Michigan’s law, the duty owed by a landowner to an invite was:

Generally, a premises possessor owes a duty of care to an invitee to exercise reasonable care to protect the invitee from an unreasonable risk of harm caused by a dangerous condition on the land. This duty generally does not encompass a duty to protect an invitee from “open and obvious” dangers. However, if there are “special aspects” of a condition that make even an “open and obvious” danger “unreasonably dangerous,” the premises possessor maintains a duty to undertake reasonable precautions to protect invitees from such danger.

The appellate court also found the claims rose from the land; therefore, the liability was from the relationship between the landowner and the plaintiff-invitee.

That is, the question was whether defendant had a duty as the owner of the land to protect plaintiff from harm and thus provide a water slide activity that was free from danger by not allowing a ditch at the bottom of the slide to exist, which propelled participants into the air.

Even if actions of the defendants contributed to the injury it was not enough to alter the relationship to create a negligence claim.

Consequently, although some alleged conduct on the part of defendant may have been involved-i.e. failing to protect plaintiff from harm, allowing the ditch to form, and/or failing to train staff to recognize the danger involved in allowing participants to hit the ditch and be propelled into the air-this does not change the fact that, as a matter of law, this negligence claim was based on premises liability law.

Because the condition was open and obvious, one that the plaintiff knew about normally because they could have or should have seen it and in this case did see it and did encounter it, there was no liability owed by the landowner-defendant.

Plaintiff argued that because the counselor’s did not recognize the danger, the danger could not be open and obvious.  

However, simply because one counselor did not see any danger in operating the slide (all the evidence pointed to the conclusion that all campers enjoyed the slide) does not result in a conclusion that an average user of ordinary intelligence would not have been able to discover the danger and the risk presented upon casual inspection by going down a water slide, hitting the ditch, and flipping into the air.

Evidence of prior injuries would be needed to convert the actions of the counselors from that of a landowner to simple defendants. If the counselors kept the slide open after a person had been injured and then the plaintiff received his injury, then the open and oblivious claim may not work.

This argument fails for the simple reason that in a premises liability action when determining whether a condition is open and obvious, “the fact-finder must consider the ‘condition of the premises,’ not the condition of the plaintiff.”

The appellate court affirmed the dismissal of the case by the trial court.

So Now What?

In this specific case, you can look at the open and obvious defense as similar to the defense of assumption of the risk.

More importantly always examine every possible defense when you are faced with a suit. Here, the answer was easy, although having campers launched into the air may not provide an open and obvious defense in all states.

If you are a camp or landowner, what you need to constantly be aware of and even search for are the non-open and obvious dangers on the land. Those things that cannot be seen by casual observation or that should have been seen by observation are what will hold you liable.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law       Rec-law@recreation-law.com              James H. Moss

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