The Michigan Court of Appeals has just reaffirmed a boat owner’s duty and resulting liability to his/her passengers while boarding. The case is Lenhoff v Rechter, an unpublished per curiam opinion (Docket No. , dated May 12, 2016). In Lenhoff, the plaintiff was injured when she fell while attempting to board the defendant’s boat. The defendant had pulled up to the dock, cut the engine and allowed the boat to somewhat drift and bob upon and down while the plaintiff attempted to board. At no time did the defendant attempt to secure the boat by tying it off to the dock or otherwise. The plaintiff testified that when she tried to board the boat, she did not make it, falling off the dock into the water and injured her shoulder in the process. The plaintiff filed a claim alleging the defendant boat owner owed her the common law duty to safely secure or stabilize his boat so that she could safely board, which he invited to her to do. Relying on old Michigan Supreme Court decision, Stern v Franklin, 290 Mich 467, 471 (1939), which held that there “is no common law duty to secure a boat prior to inviting passengers to embark or disembark”, the Court of Appeals was bound to follow the existing precedent and ruled in favor of the defendant boat owner. Despite this holding, the Court did clarify, however, that important to its decision was the fact that the defendant, himself, did not personally assist the plaintiff in the boarding process. Had the defendant assisted the plaintiff in some manner which was a proximate cause for her to fall, then the common law clearly does “impose an obligation upon everyone who attempts to do anything, even gratuitously, for another, to exercise some degree of care and skill in the performance of what he has undertaken, for nonperformance of which duty an action lies.” Thus, a boat owner’s duty and liability to invited passengers is clear: (1) there is no duty to secure the boat for safe boarding; but (2) there is a duty to exercise ordinary care while assisting passengers during the boarding process.
Authored by L. Page Graves