Articles Posted in Governmental Immunity

DamIn the immediate aftermath of one of the worst disasters in Michigan’s history, evidence has emerged that the Edenville Dam failure could have been avoided. Long before the catastrophic event, both regulators and the dam’s owners knew the 96-year-old structure did not meet federal or state capacity standards, which are imposed to ensure dams can withstand major flooding. In fact, state regulators were actively investigating the dam’s capacity when record rainfall overwhelmed the structure. Flood waters washed out a 900-foot section of the dam’s eastern earthen dike, releasing the waters of Wixom Lake into the Tittabawassee River. The torrential surge flowed downstream to Sanford Lake, where it overwhelmed the Sanford Dam, inundating large swaths of Midland and Saginaw counties. Over 10,000 people were evacuated before the flood waters crested.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission identified the dam’s susceptibility to failure as early as 1993, urging the owner to increase spillway capacity. When the dam’s current owner, Boyce Hydro Power, LLC, acquired the dam, federal regulators brought the structural failings to its attention. However, in 2018 the federal government turned regulation of the dam over to the State of Michigan. Michigan’s regulatory scheme is far less stringent than the federal laws under which the dam formerly operated.

Despite knowledge of the dam’s weaknesses, the State of Michigan actively urged Boyce Hydro to keep Wixom Lake’s water level high, since shoreline residents and those who used the lake for recreation found higher water levels more appealing. Additionally, state regulators took more drastic action to ensure higher water levels in order to preserve habitat for certain freshwater mussels. In the falls of 2019, Boyce Hydro asked state regulators if it could lower the lake level, but the state denied the request, stating that a similar drawdown in 2018 killed a number of the endangered mussels. Boyce proceeded to draw the lake level down despite the state’s refusal. In response, the state filed a lawsuit against the company in April of 2020. Boyce claims it raised the lake level this spring because of pressure from Wixom-Lake-300x200shoreline residents and state regulators.

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On July 19, one man was killed in a Michigan car accident involving a semi-truck and a law enforcement vehicle. According to a local news report covering the tragic accident, the fatal crash occurred in Dewitt, at the intersection of Old US-27 and Cutler Road. The crash occurred around 8:30 in the evening.

Evidently, a state trooper was pulling onto Old US-27 when the trooper’s vehicle clipped the side of a passing semi-truck. The trooper’s car spun out of control, crashing into an oncoming motorist’s vehicle head-on. The motorist’s vehicle ended up in a ditch along the road’s edge, while the trooper’s car remained on the road. The driver of the oncoming vehicle was pronounced dead at the scene, and the trooper was hospitalized with serious but non-life threatening injuries. The trooper is expected to recover. Evidently, the trooper was responding to a call reporting retail fraud. The accident is currently under investigation.

bus accident

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In a recent personal injury case before a Michigan appeals court, the plaintiff sued a school district after the plaintiff’s car crashed with a school bus. The plaintiff filed a claim of negligence against the bus driver and argued that the school district was vicariously liable. The school district argued that the plaintiff’s claims were barred due to government immunity.

Governmental Immunity

A governmental agency is generally immune from lawsuits, although certain exceptions apply. If a government employee is engaged in a governmental function, both the employee as well as the agency are generally protected by immunity.

The Motor Vehicle Exception

The plaintiff claimed that the case fell under the motor-vehicle exception. Under MCL 691.1405, a governmental agency is liable for injuries and property damages that result from “the negligent operation by any officer, agent, or employee of the government agency, of a motor vehicle of which the governmental agency is owner.” In a negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove duty, breach, causation, and damages, and the plaintiff bears the burden of proving a negligence case.

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car accident

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After a car accident in which two people were killed and one was seriously injured, the plaintiffs (including the estates of the deceased parties) brought suit against the Eaton County Road Commission. They alleged that the Road Commission was negligent in its maintenance of the roads. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident due to negligent maintenance of road conditions, you should contact a skilled Michigan car accident attorney as soon as possible. As this case illustrates, the time frames and requirements for bringing suit against a government agency are very specific. In order to make sure you do not lose the ability to bring your claim forward, you should contact a personal injury attorney as soon as possible.

Governmental Immunity 

If you are injured on public property due to government negligence, you will probably want to hold the government accountable for your injuries. In a case that recently came down from the Michigan Court of Appeals, the justices clarified the requirements to bring suit for injuries on government property. Since the government can sometimes claim immunity, unlike with individuals or businesses, there are additional hoops to jump through for those seeking damages. One of these differences is that you have less time to start the process to file your claim, so it is even more crucial that you contact a skilled Michigan premises liability attorney as soon as possible after an accident. The law gets complicated in this area, and if you don’t give notice to the proper entities in the proper way, the court may throw out your lawsuit, permanently barring you from bringing your case forward.

Government Responsibility

 In 2015, a woman was at the Michigan Hall of Justice in Lansing when she tripped on uneven bricks on the front porch of the building. She ended up falling and suffering injuries. The law requires that the government maintain and repair public buildings that are open for use by the public. If the government knows about a dangerous condition and does not fix it in a reasonable time, it could be held liable for injuries sustained due to the defect. Potential plaintiffs have 120 days to give notice to the government of the injuries and their intent to sue.

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.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 a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive force case, a plaintiff alleged two defendant Michigan state troopers struck him with their police cruiser, tased him, and forced him to stand and walk on his injured left leg after he dislocated his hip. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity based on their police cruiser’s dash-cam video of the pursuit and incident. The defendants further argued that the plaintiff ran into their parked vehicle and was therefore responsible for his own injuries.In addition to his excessive force claim, the plaintiff alleged a state law claim of gross negligence against the officers. They argued that his gross negligence claim should be dismissed because the factual allegations pled supported an intentional tort claim only. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan denied their motion for summary judgment as to the § 1983 claim for excessive force but granted the summary judgment motion as to the gross negligence claim.

The court first analyzed whether the defendants were entitled to summary judgment on the excessive force claim brought under § 1983. The defendants argued qualified immunity shielded them from liability. Qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. The court employs a two-step inquiry in deciding qualified immunity questions. First, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, has the plaintiff shown that a constitutional violation has occurred? Second, was the right clearly established at the time of the violation?

The district court first found that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the individual police officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether the officers used excessive force. The defendants argued they were entitled to qualified immunity based on the dash-cam video and the plaintiff’s signed statement, given at the hospital, that he slipped on the mud and ran into the police cruiser himself. But the medical records showed that he suffered a very serious injury involving the dislocation of his hip and a comminuted fracture of the left acetabulum, which required traction, surgery, six days of hospitalization, and a long period of recovery in a rehabilitation center. His treating physician noted that although police first told him that the plaintiff had run into the police car, the patient later told him he had been hit by the police car. In fact, numerous notations were set forth in the medical records stating that the plaintiff reported that he was struck by the police cruiser, which ran over his left leg. Given the severity of his injuries, it appeared plausible that the police cruiser struck him rather than that he merely ran into the vehicle himself.

A plaintiff filed a Michigan sports accident case following injuries he sustained while playing softball at a sports complex operated by defendant Canton Township. Another defendant is an employee of Canton Township in its Parks Department who oversees maintenance at the softball fields. A third defendant is also employed by Canton Township as a laborer in the Parks Department, and his duties include daily maintenance of the softball fields. The plaintiff’s injury occurred as he attempted to slide into second base. He alleged that the cause of his injury was the failure of the base to disengage from the mound as designed when he slid into it, which he attributed to the gross negligence of the defendants. The defendants claimed that the injury was a result of his improper slide. The trial court concluded that a genuine issue of material fact existed with regard to whether the defendants engaged in gross negligence that was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. Additionally, the trial court concluded that defendant Canton Township could be held vicariously liable for any gross negligence of its employees. The defendants appealed from the order of the trial court denying their joint motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) (governmental immunity), (C)(8) (failure to state a claim), & (C)(10) (no genuine issue of material fact). The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed.The appeals court first explained that the trial court’s conclusion that Canton Township could be vicariously liable was clearly erroneous. The Government Tort Liability Act (GTLA) states that “except as otherwise provided in this act, a governmental agency is immune from tort liability if the governmental agency is engaged in the exercise or discharge of a governmental function.” The Michigan Supreme Court has defined the phrase “tort liability” in the GTLA to mean “all legal responsibility arising from a noncontractual civil wrong for which a remedy may be obtained in the form of compensatory damages.” Therefore, the broad grant of immunity provided in the GTLA to governmental agencies includes cases in which a plaintiff seeks to impose tort liability vicariously. The language of the gross negligence exception in the GTLA states that it only applies to officers, employees, volunteers, and members of a board, council, commission, or statutorily created task force. Therefore, unless there is a specifically enumerated exception allowing a lawsuit against the governmental agency, rather than merely its officers or employees, the governmental agency cannot be held vicariously liable for the acts of its employees.

The issue concerning the claim against the employees, the appeals court explained, was whether the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact that they engaged in gross negligence that was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that the reason the base did not disengage from the mount as designed when he slid into it was because the defendants failed to properly clean the underside of the base and failed to adequately maintain the ground around the base, such that excess dirt and debris built up on the underside of the base and along its outside edges. In support of his position, the plaintiff relied on the deposition testimony of his manager, who testified that, after the plaintiff’s injury, he struck the base with a bat several times, and it did not disengage. The plaintiff also relied on the affidavit of an expert, who averred that a buildup of dirt and residue on the back and lateral sides of the base can cause the base to fail to disengage. The expert concluded that since the base did not disengage when the manager hit it with a bat, there must have been a significant buildup of dirt and debris, which could only have been caused by a failure to properly maintain the base.

At their depositions, neither employee disputed that the underside of the bases was not regularly cleaned. One employee testified that the underside would rarely, if ever, have any accumulation of dirt or debris. The other employee simply testified that such cleaning was not required for the bases to function properly. The first employee did testify in detail, however, about how he would clean up along the outside of the base mounds. He described how he dragged the field with a device pulled behind a utility vehicle and how he cleaned the mounting assembly for each base. A daily maintenance check sheet also showed that he dragged each softball field and then set all of the bases at the sports complex on an almost daily basis. The supervisor of umpires at the sports complex also testified that the fields were always in excellent condition before each game.

Over five years after a man was beaten to death inside the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, his family is finally getting closure. His survivors reached a financial settlement for $544,000 in their civil lawsuit against the state of Michigan. The state will also cover $281,000 in attorneys fees and court costs. Sadly, however, the victim’s wife, sister, brother, and daughter have all passed since the filing of the lawsuit. The settlement was approved by his other family members in Michigan.The victim, a World War II veteran who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, was attacked in April 2012 by another patient. He passed away just days after the attack from injuries he sustained during it, and the Kent County medical examiner ruled it a homicide. The prosecutor, however, did not file criminal charges. The prosecutor reasoned that he did not wish to compound the tragedy by prosecuting the suspect, who was also in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia. He concluded that prosecuting him in addition would accomplish nothing, particularly since he likely has no memory of the attack.

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A defendant appealed from the order of the trial court denying her motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) (governmental immunity). The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s judgment, holding that the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact on the elements of both gross negligence and proximate cause.The plaintiff brought suit after she sustained severe injuries to her hand while operating a table saw during a woodshop class that the defendant taught at Lakeville High School. She alleged that her injuries were caused by the defendant’s actions in removing a blade guard from the table saw, encouraging students to operate the table saw without the blade guard, and on the day of her injury, specifically directing the plaintiff to make a cut on the table saw that she had never before attempted without any supervision and without the presence of the blade guard.

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