Michigan High Court Will Consider Girls Bonfire Injury at Century-Old Inn

September 29, 2017

The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to look at the case of a 10-year-old girl who burned her foot on hot coals a day after a Lake Michigan beach bonfire.

The century-old Watervale Inn in Benzie County could be liable if an appeals court decision stands. Critics of that decision had urged the Supreme Court to take the case, saying the result could discourage property owners from allowing public access to recreational land.

Bailey Noble suffered burns while stepping on the hidden remnants of a beach bonfire near the inn in 2013. The fire apparently hadn’t been fully extinguished the previous night. Bailey wasn’t staying at the inn, but a friend’s family had been invited to use the beach during the day.

Under Michigan law, landowners are broadly shielded from liability if people are injured while fishing, hunting, camping, hiking or participating in other pastimes, unless there’s gross negligence or willful misconduct. The appeals court said the protection doesn’t apply in Bailey’s case because she was simply making sand castles and engaging in low-risk play.

The Supreme Court said Friday it will hear arguments in the months ahead. An important issue will be whether Bailey’s play should be defined as “other outdoor recreational use” of the inn’s beachfront, a key phrase in the law. If so, the inn could be protected from the lawsuit.

Heart of the Lakes Center for Land Conservation Policy, based in Bay City, represents many people who hold conservation easements on thousands of acres while allowing public access. The group said the appeals court misinterpreted a “plain and unambiguous” law that “encompasses all kinds of outdoor recreational uses and is expressly open-ended.”

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