Articles Posted in 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.

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.

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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?

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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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A public park patron filed suit after being struck by a rock thrown from a passing lawnmower. The Michigan appeals court reversed the circuit court’s denial of the defendants’ motion for summary disposition, concluding the patron made no allegation rising to the level necessary to prevent the defendants’ use of governmental immunity.

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On May 20, 2013, the plaintiff visited Williams Island beach with her family. They sat at a picnic table. Approximately 30 minutes later, a Yates Township maintenance crew arrived. A Yates Township employee was tasked with cutting the grass using a riding lawnmower. The plaintiff asserted that on his first pass, the employee drove the power mower within 10 feet of the picnic table, causing dust and debris to be thrown into the air. As a result, the plaintiff and her family decided to leave. The plaintiff alleged that before they could retreat, the employee drove by again within a few yards. A rock shot out from the mower and struck the plaintiff between the eyes on the forehead. She suffered a fracture to the left nasal bone as well as swelling and bruising around her eyes and nose.

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