Michigan Appeals Court Upholds Grant of Summary Disposition to Defendants in Drug Overdose Lawsuit

On behalf of a victim’s estate, a plaintiff sued A Forever Recovery, Inc. (AFR) and a specialist for ordinary and medical negligence. She appealed the trial court’s opinion granting summary disposition to the defendants, pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(8). The Michigan appeals court affirmed.

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This case arose out of the victim’s seeking treatment at AFR for drug addiction. A Texas resident, he was 23 years old when he died. He underwent inpatient rehabilitation treatment at AFR in Michigan for several months in 2011.

As part of its program, AFR provided support once a patient was discharged from the facility. The plaintiff alleged that the victim and his aftercare specialist, the defendant, developed an inappropriate personal relationship. Approximately four months after his discharge from AFR, he relapsed again and died of an overdose of cocaine and heroin.

The plaintiff later discovered the communications between the victim and the specialist and sued the defendants. She alleged that the romantic relationship between them prohibited him from receiving the proper support for his addiction, in turn causing his eventual overdose.

The defendants jointly moved the trial court for summary disposition, pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(10). In granting the motion, the trial court explained that because of the victim’s illegal use of drugs (the proximate cause of his death), the claim was barred by the wrongful conduct rule.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the wrongful conduct rule did not apply. The appeals court disagreed.

The wrongful conduct rule dictates that a person cannot maintain an action if he must rely on an illegal or immoral act or transaction to which he is a party. There are two limitations on the wrongful conduct rule. First, a plaintiff’s claim is not automatically barred under this rule merely because he engaged in illegal conduct when he was injured. Second, for the wrongful conduct rule to apply, a sufficient causal nexus must exist between the plaintiff’s illegal conduct and the plaintiff’s asserted damages.

In holding the wrongful conduct rule applied, the appeals court held that it was clear that the victim died from a drug overdose, and possession and use of cocaine and heroin is illegal under both Texas and Michigan laws. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that death is a foreseeable, natural, and probable result of overdosing on dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin. His illegal drug use proximately caused his death, and there was a sufficient causal nexus between his illegal conduct and his death so that the requirements for applying the wrongful conduct rule were satisfied.

The plaintiff also argued that the wrongful conduct rule was invalidated by the enactment of Michigan’s comparative fault statutes. The appeals court disagreed.

The appeals court reasoned that when the legislature enacted the comparative negligence statutes, it was aware of the wrongful conduct rule as a long-held principle of Michigan law. None of the comparative negligence statutes expressly altered this rule. In fact, MCL 600.2957(3) emphasized that the statutes did not “eliminate or diminish” preexisting law. Thus, the court held the 1995 comparative fault statutes did not eliminate the wrongful conduct rule.

The plaintiff next argued that both exceptions to the wrongful conduct rule applied. Again, the appeals court disagreed.

There are two exceptions to the wrongful conduct rule. The first is the culpability exception, which may be implicated when both parties have engaged in illegal conduct. Pursuant to this exception, a plaintiff who has engaged in illegal conduct that proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries may still seek recovery against the defendant if the defendant’s fault is greater than the plaintiff’s fault. The second exception is the statutory basis exception, which may apply when the statute that the plaintiff alleges the defendant violated allows the plaintiff to recover compensation for injuries suffered as a result of the violation.

The appeals court first explained the culpability exception did not apply. The plaintiff cited no authority to support her argument; she merely argued that the defendant’s conduct in developing an inappropriate romantic relationship with the victim and AFR’s failure to properly supervise her were worse than the victim’s decision to use illegal drugs. The appeals court explained that the plaintiff failed to allege that the defendant did anything illegal. Accordingly, the culpability exception did not apply.

Similarly, the appeals court held the plaintiff cited no authority to support an application of the statutory basis exception. There was no conduct committed by the defendants that was outlawed by the statutes that the plaintiff cited. The plaintiff did not allege that the defendants violated any criminal statutes. Accordingly, the statutory basis exception did not apply.

Finally, the plaintiff argued that public policy reasons did not support the application of the wrongful conduct rule. The appeals court disagreed, holding that it would be a “mockery of justice” to shift the blame of a person relapsing and engaging in illegal drug use to those treating the drug addiction. It would further frustrate public policy by encouraging illegal drug use.

For these reasons, the appeals court upheld the grant of summary disposition to the defendants.

The wrongful death attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent families throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Michigan Appeals Court Reverses Grant of Summary Disposition to Defendant in Vehicle/Pedestrian Accident Case, Neumann Law Group, May 24, 2017.

Michigan Court to Decide Who Should be Liable When Robots Kill, Neumann Law Group, April 19, 2017.

Michigan Residents File Federal Water Class Action Lawsuit Against EPA for Flint Water Crisis, Neumann Law Group, March 15, 2017.

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