Lawyers use the terms “black-letter law” and “hornbook law” to refer to legal principles that have become well-established over the years. These principles often begin life as a holding in a single case, and are then reapplied and refined in subsequent cases. Eventually, they are so entrenched that they can be taught as actual rules to law students (thus, “hornbook law”) and printed in summaries of governing law (thus, “black-letter law”).
But even black-letter law is litigated again and again, as parties advocate for exceptions that fit the particular circumstances of their case. For example, the Court of Appeals’ recent opinion in Faustina v Town Center, the court addressed challenges to two black-letter rules of Michigan law: (a) settlement agreements are binding and enforceable like contracts and (b) property owners can’t be held liable for injuries caused by obvious and avoidable hazards.
The plaintiff in Faustina was an apartment tenant who fell down the stairs as she was descending to the laundry area. She was walking the stairs in the middle of the night, without having turned on the lights, and injured herself when she stepped on a nail left by a subcontractor. She engaged in facilitative mediation and signed an agreement with two of the defendants. But she later refused to consent to an order dismissing her claims against them because she felt that the settlement didn’t gave adequate consideration to her medical bills.
The Court of Appeals affirmed judgment in the defendants’ favor. The plaintiff admitted that she signed the settlement agreement, and the agreement itself unambiguously stated that it resolved all claims against the two defendants who engaged in mediation. The plaintiff could avoid that agreement only if she showed duress, fraud, mutual mistake, severe stress, or unconscionable advantage taken by one party over another. And her claim that the settlement agreement didn’t give due consideration to her medical bills showed only that she was mistaken, not that the defendants were mistaken as well. Because only mutual mistake will void an agreement, the plaintiff’s argument didn’t establish grounds for relief.
The plaintiff’s negligence claim against the remaining defendant turned on application of the open-and-obvious doctrine. According to that doctrine, a defendant cannot be held liable for injuries caused by an obvious hazard unless (1) the hazard was “unreasonably dangerous,” or (2) the hazard was “effectively unavoidable.” This “unavoidability” means that the hazard was “inescapable” or “inevitable.” The Court of Appeals therefore rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the nail was unavoidable. It held that she “could have simply chosen not to confront that open and obvious danger” or “put on shoes and turned on the light to avoid falling down the stairs.”
With the Court of Appeals’ opinion in Faustina, these rules—that settlements are binding contracts and that property owners have no duty to protect others from obvious hazards—remain hornbook law in Michigan. They will, of course, face future challenges.