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.