A Young Girl Gets Burned by Hot Coals on a Beach—Who Is Responsible?

A young girl burns her foot playing at an inn’s private beach. Her mother believes the inn is at fault. The inn disagrees. Who's in the right?

YBTJ September 2018Noma Bar for Reader's Digest

One August day during a summer camping trip, Katherine Pearson and her family stopped at the Inn at Watervale on Lake Michigan to hang out at the resort’s private beach. The beach is typically reserved for paying guests, but the inn’s owner, Dori Turner, had worked with Pearson on a conservation project and had given her an open invitation to use it for free. Pearson and her husband relaxed on beach towels and read while their daughter, ­Sophie, played in the sand nearby with her friend Bailey Ann Marie Noble, who’d come along for the weekend. The two ten-year-olds had been playing for about an hour when, all of a sudden, Pearson heard one of the girls scream. “I looked to my left, and Bailey was rolling around in the sand,” she later explained. As she ran toward the child, Pearson called out, “Did you get stung?” Bailey yelled back, “I stepped in hot coals!”

Fires are fairly common on this Michigan beach. The inn’s staff placed protective fire rings to contain blazes, but individual patrons would often start their own. What’s more, instead of using water to extinguish those fires, as the inn requested, people would simply toss sand on the flames, which often left embers buried and hidden from view. Bailey had stepped on some of those hidden coals.

When Pearson saw Bailey’s foot, she thought it “looked horrible.” She immediately took the child to the lake, put her foot in the water, and called 911. The hospital later determined that Bailey had suffered second-­degree burns plus one third-degree burn the size of an eraser on her left foot.

Nine months later, Bailey’s mother, Kerri Hunter Otto, filed a lawsuit on her daughter’s behalf in Benzie County Circuit Court. She claimed that the inn’s owners had been negligent. The inn argued that Bailey’s mother couldn’t make a negligence claim, because the inn was protected by the Michigan Recreational Land Use Act (RUA). The RUA says that a person who hasn’t paid to use a facility for “fishing, hunting, trapping, camping, hiking, sightseeing, motor­cycling, snow­mobiling, or any other outdoor recreational use” can’t sue if he or she gets injured. Playing on the beach, the inn maintained, counted as “other outdoor recreational use.”

Was the inn responsible for the burns that the girl sustained on its private beach? You be the judge.

The Verdict

No, the inn was not. Initially, in October 2015, the trial court sided with the inn and dismissed the case, but then the state’s court of appeals disagreed. It found that the RUA did not apply, because playing on a beach is not “of the same kind, class, character, or nature” as the activities listed in the act, such as fishing and hiking. So the inn took the case to the state’s supreme court. “Everyone knows that going to the beach on Lake Michigan in the summertime is an example of outdoor recreational use,” said the inn’s attorney, John Worsfold. Further, the family didn’t pay to use the land. If they had, says Worsfold, “negligence would have applied.” The supreme court agreed: “With any recreation on or in vast, vacant natural habitats, there is an assumed risk of injury. The shoreline of Lake Michigan is no different.”

Next, read about these weird laws you probably break all the time.

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