Michigan Appeals Court Finds State Employee Entitled to Immunity for Car Crash

Plaintiffs Fred St. Onge and Karen Ross were hit by a State of Michigan vehicle driven by defendant Ramona G. Smith, an employee of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). The lower court granted summary disposition to Smith, pursuant to the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), reasoning that Smith was entitled to governmental immunity because she was acting within the scope of employment when the crash occurred. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed.One afternoon in September 2011, Smith inspected a nursing home in Negaunee as part of her employment with LARA. She was permitted to stay in a hotel that night rather than driving home. On her way to the hotel in Munising, Smith turned left on US-41 in front of the plaintiffs’ oncoming car.

Onge and Ross sued, alleging that Smith negligently turned left without yielding to oncoming traffic and struck their car. They also alleged serious injuries. Smith moved for summary judgment, asserting immunity. The trial court granted Smith’s motion, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The GTLA provides government employees engaged in the exercise or discharge of a governmental function with broad immunity from tort liability. On appeal, the plaintiffs raised three challenges to the defendant’s immunity argument. First, they alleged that Smith was not acting “in the course of employment or service” when the accident occurred. They also asserted that the defendant was not “acting within the scope of her authority” or “in the exercise or discharge of a governmental function” at the time of the crash. All three contentions essentially boiled down to a single argument:  that Smith’s driving to the hotel was not a job requirement or an element of her service as a governmental employee. The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed.

The appeals court reasoned that Smith had an employment relationship with LARA. Unrebutted evidence confirmed that her job required her to drive to various nursing homes in northern Michigan to perform inspections, and that her employer expected her to stay in hotels when on surveying trips in the Upper Peninsula. The state assigned the defendant a car to use during travel to and from nursing homes, which supported the notion that this travel constituted an integral part of her job. The appeals court found it unquestionable that Smith’s travel to and from nursing homes and hotels furthered the state’s purpose.

The plaintiffs argued that pursuant to the Workers’ Disability Compensation Act (WDCA), injuries sustained by an employee while going to or coming from work are not compensable. However, there is an exception to the rule encompassing travel conducted for a dual purpose, combining employment-related business goals with the employee’s personal activity. Regardless, the court found that the WDCA did not apply here.

Nor was the appeals court persuaded by the plaintiffs’ argument that Smith was acting outside the “scope of her authority” at the time of the accident. Michigan courts define “scope of authority” as the reasonable power that an agent has been delegated or might foreseeably be delegated in carrying out the principal’s business. Here, Smith was driving a state-owned vehicle to a hotel after completing a nursing home inspection. The state assigned her a vehicle for the explicit purpose of traveling to and from nursing homes. Thus, Smith had explicit authority to use the vehicle and acted within the scope of her authority by doing so. The fact that her job description did not include driving, the court held, was irrelevant because she was authorized and expected to use the vehicle to travel to a hotel.

The court concluded that Smith’s travel to and from the nursing home was necessary to enable the inspection, and therefore the defendant was discharging a governmental function at the time of the accident, so immunity applied. Thus, it affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary disposition.

Car accident lawyer Kelly Neumann at the Neumann Law Group represents victims of accidents 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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