A recent order from the Michigan Supreme Court carries significant implications to those operating residential facilities that cater to senior citizens.
The family of an elderly resident of the Independence Village of Oxford sued the facility after the resident walked outside and froze to death. The family alleged that her death was due to the fact that the door she exited automatically locked behind her, and that because of her age and cognitive impairments, she was unable to get back in.
The facility defended itself by asserting that it was an unlicensed “independent living” facility and therefore had no duty to maintain the property any differently than any other apartment complex. This argument prevailed in the trial court, and the trial court’s dismissal of the matter was affirmed when the case was heard by the Michigan Court of Appeals.
But the Michigan Supreme Court saw things differently. The Michigan Supreme Court sent the case back down to the trial court so that the case could be decided by a jury. In doing so, the Michigan Supreme Court held that, notwithstanding the “independent living” label, because this facility marketed itself to older adults and provided other accommodations associated with the needs of older adults, the facility had a “common law” duty to protect its residents against risks associated with their advanced age. In reaching this outcome, the Michigan Supreme Court said:
The harm at issue was objectively foreseeable. Ms. Kermath was injured and later passed away after she exited a door in a common area of the building, which was under the exclusive control of the landlord, and she was locked out in the cold due to the door having an automatic lock. A reasonable person could anticipate that an elderly resident living in an unlicensed independent-living facility where the average age of the residents exceeds 80 years old could become locked out of a building after exiting an automatically locking door on a cold winter morning.
The record shows that Independence Village of Oxford intentionally marketed and catered to elderly individuals who are in need of greater support than the general population. A substantial premium is charged for tenancy at the facility, which includes two hot meals a day, biweekly housekeeping, and laundry services. The record shows that the facility also provided daily check-in calls, a pull-cord alert mechanism in units, and an on-site third-party contractor who offers additional homecare and medical services for a fee, measures that strongly suggest the landlord had some knowledge that certain residents would require additional assistance beyond that of an average tenant
Michigan’s senior housing market is challenging to navigate in part because of the various labels that facilities use in identifying themselves, such as: independent living, assisted living, adult foster care, nursing homes, or continuous care communities. Consumers frequently don’t understand the distinctions between these terms and are typically just looking for a place where their loved one’s care needs can be met at an affordable price. This decision by the Michigan Supreme Court puts facilities on notice that these labels won’t provide protection against liability, but rather, that when facilities are marketed as housing options for older adults, regardless of licensing or labeling, such facilities have an obligation to manage those properties in a manner that makes them safe for the people they invited to live there.