Michigan Appeals Court Holds Plaintiff’s Negligence Claim is Barred By Governmental Immunity

A defendant appealed an August 17, 2016 order denying his motion for summary disposition in an action arising out of injuries sustained by the plaintiff when he was riding his motorcycle, and a gas main exploded. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the Michigan motorcycle accident case for the entry of an order awarding summary disposition in favor of the defendant.

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On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion for summary disposition, arguing that the plaintiff’s claim was barred by governmental immunity under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), and there was no question of fact regarding whether he acted in a grossly negligent manner.

Except under certain circumstances, the GTLA provides immunity to governmental employees from tort liability. For tort claims involving alleged negligence, lower-level governmental employees such as the defendant are entitled to immunity if the following three criteria are met:  (1) they are acting or reasonably believe they are acting within the scope of their authority, (2) they are engaged in the exercise or discharge of a governmental function, and (3) their conduct does not amount to gross negligence that is the proximate cause of the injury or damage. In this case, the plaintiff did not dispute that the defendant was acting within the scope of his authority, or that the defendant was engaged in the exercise or discharge of a government function. The central issue before the appeals court therefore was whether there was a question of fact regarding whether the defendant’s conduct amounted to gross negligence.

Gross negligence is defined by the GTLA as conduct reckless enough to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results. Simply alleging that an actor could have done more is insufficient, since a claim can always be made that extra precautions could have influenced the result. Instead, gross negligence suggests almost a willful disregard of precautions to attend to safety and a disregard for substantial risks. It is as though, if an observer watched the actor, he could reasonably conclude that the actor did not care about the safety of those in his charge. The determination of whether a governmental employee’s conduct constituted gross negligence that proximately caused the complained-of injury under the GTLA is generally a question of fact, but, if reasonable minds could not differ, a court may grant summary disposition.

In this case, the appeals court held that in viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a rational juror could not conclude that the defendant simply did not care about the safety or welfare of those in his charge. The record indicated that the defendant arrived at the scene and spoke with the site foreman, finding out that there was a gas leak and that the area had been cleared. The defendant called dispatch and requested that dispatch contact Consumers Energy to have the gas main shut off. The defendant also directed the foreman to keep the area cleared. The defendant did not depart the area until after he ensured that dispatch had contacted Consumers Energy. Although the defendant could have and should have done more to secure the scene, his negligent conduct did not meet the definition of a willful disregard for the safety of others. Accordingly, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the appeals court could not conclude that the defendant’s conduct was reckless enough to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted. The defendant took precautions to rectify the situation. Such precautions negated a finding that his conduct was so reckless that a rational juror could conclude that he did not care about the safety of others.

The plaintiff argued that the defendant should have stayed at the scene longer, established a zone of danger, called the police, and closed the highway. The plaintiff also cited to an affidavit of a purported expert to support his claim that the defendant should have taken additional safety measures in response to the gas leak. However, even assuming that the defendant should have done everything that the plaintiff suggested, and assuming that the defendant’s conduct fell below the appropriate standard of care, simply alleging that an actor could have done more was insufficient and did not show that the defendant simply did not care about the safety or welfare of those in his charge.

Since no rational juror could conclude that the defendant’s conduct amounted to gross negligence, the plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred by governmental immunity, and summary disposition in favor of the defendant was warranted; the trial court erred in concluding otherwise. The appeals court therefore reversed and remanded for entry of an order awarding summary disposition to the defendant.

The motorcycle accident attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent people 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.

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