Michigan Supreme Court to Hear Holiday Party Injury Case

A woman’s fall at a holiday party has reached the Michigan Supreme Court, which could use the case to clarify the responsibilities of property owners when they welcome guests to their home.

The court heard arguments Tuesday in the case of Susan Blackwell, who missed an 8-inch step when she stepped into an unlit room at a co-worker’s home on December 14, 2013. According to court records, Blackwell arrived at the home of Dean and Debra Franchi for a dinner party they were hosting. She entered the home and proceeded to the mudroom to hang her purse. An approximate eight inch drop off/stair exists between the hallway and the mudroom. Unaware of the stair, Blackwell claims she fell resulting in injuries.

Justices are exploring whether she should have been informed about any risks when she arrived at the party.

“It’s worth the time of this court,” said Chief Justice Stephen Markman, noting the case resembles other injury lawsuits faced by judges in lower courts.

Blackwell’s lawsuit was dismissed by an Oakland County judge, but the state appeals court reversed that decision and said a jury should determine whether the danger was “open and obvious” because there was conflicting testimony. It’s a key legal standard in Michigan, one that often means a personal injury lawsuit doesn’t get very far.

Steven Couch, an attorney for Dean and Debra Franchi, said Blackwell should have assumed possible danger when she saw the unlit room. But Blackwell’s attorney, Kevin Oliver, said the step was dangerous – not the darkness.

“Even with the light on, you don’t see that a step is there,” Oliver said.

The Michigan Manufacturers Association said a decision against the couple could force any property owner, not just homeowners, to explain every potential hazard to a visitor.

“So deck the halls but beware the boughs of holly. … If something as ordinary as a step or a dark room is not an ‘open and obvious’ hazard, then what is?” the group said in a court filing by attorney Cliff Taylor, a former chief justice.