Shopper’s death raises questions about big-box lots

DETROIT — The Michigan Supreme Court has heard arguments in a case that could have sweeping consequences for big-box stores in the state.

The case was filed by the family of Virginia Rawluszki, who eventually died of her injuries after being struck by a pickup truck in the marked crosswalk of a Menards home improvement store in Bay City in 2011. Her family said Menards should have installed stop signs to slow down traffic.

But Menards said the risk of being hit in a parking lot is open and obvious — a key legal standard that typically protects property owners from liability under Michigan law. During arguments last week, Justice Robert Young Jr. noted that conditions would need to be “unreasonably dangerous” to get over that threshold.

“This is an issue which affects nearly every commercial property owner in this state,” Menards attorney Alan Sullivan said in a court filing, summing up the significance of the case.

Rawluszki was leaving a Menards store when she was hit. She suffered a brain injury that eventually led to her death in 2013 at age 72. The driver said he was blinded by sun and didn’t see the woman when he cut through an empty parking spot and entered the crosswalk.

A Bay County judge refused Menards’ request to dismiss the lawsuit, and the state appeals court upheld the decision in 2015. The retailer wants the Supreme Court to overturn those rulings.

Sullivan told the court that the marked crosswalk acts as a warning for shoppers and drivers but shouldn’t be considered a total “zone of safety.”

“It’s a lot like a step or a curb,” he said. “Yes, something could happen. You could trip and you could fall. Most of the time you’re going to traverse it without any difficulty at all.”

Philip Ellison, an attorney for Rawluszki’s family, urged the justices to let the lower court rulings stand and let a jury determine liability, if any.

“They put in a crosswalk that doesn’t meet the standard in the industry,” Ellison said.

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