Northern Michigan Inn Faces No Liability for Bonfire Burns

April 11, 2018

The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a century-old inn in a lawsuit over hot coals on a Lake Michigan beach.

The court says Watervale Inn is protected by a law that shields landowners from liability during recreational activities. The court last week reversed a decision by the Michigan appeals court.

A 10-year-old girl, Bailey Noble, suffered burns while stepping on the hidden remnants of a beach bonfire in 2013. The fire apparently hadn’t been fully extinguished the previous night. Bailey wasn’t staying at Watervale Inn in Benzie County, but a friend’s family had been invited to use the beach.

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.

An important issue in the case was whether Bailey’s play should be defined as “other outdoor recreational use” of the inn’s beachfront, a key phrase in the law.

The case was closely watched by people who allow public access to their properties. They feared that a decision against the inn could make them liable in the future.

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