Michigan Appeals Court Holds Defendant Teacher Not Protected by Governmental Immunity Following Woodshop Injury
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.
According to the plaintiff’s deposition testimony, the defendant actively advised students not to use the blade guard, telling them that using it was not consistent with how table saw operation is done in “real life” and that the blade guard was only put on the table saw when the insurance company came for inspections. The defendant did not dispute that she was the person who removed the blade guard and that she instructed students that safe operation of the table saw did not require the guard, only the use of a push stick and a push block. She stated her view that the use of the blade guard presented its own safety problems because it had the potential to lull users into a false sense of security and to potentially obstruct their vision of the work area. The defendant denied making statements about only putting the guard on when insurance companies conducted inspections.
According to the plaintiff, on the day of the accident, the defendant asked her to help another student by making an angled cut on the table saw. At the time, the blade guard was not on the saw, and the defendant acknowledged that she would have been the last one to remove it. The plaintiff had never made an angled cut before, and she stated that she initially declined the defendant’s request and only agreed after what she described as the defendant’s repeated requests. Even after the plaintiff initially failed to properly make the cut, the defendant simply made an adjustment to the saw, told the plaintiff to try again, and then left the plaintiff unsupervised. During the plaintiff’s second attempt, the table saw experienced a “kickback.”A kickback is an incident that occurs when the work-piece is propelled back toward the table saw operator, often at very high speeds, causing the potential for injury both due to the possibility of the user’s hand slipping from the work-piece and contacting the saw blade, and due to the possibility of the user being struck by the propelled work-piece. In this case, the kickback resulted in the plaintiff’s hand coming into contact with the saw blade, resulting in significant injuries.
The defendant maintained that the kickback occurred because the plaintiff removed one of her hands from either the push block or the push stick. In support of this position, the defendant pointed to the written statement and accompanying affidavit of the student for whom the plaintiff was performing the cut. In that statement, the student described the kickback as beginning after the plaintiff reached around to grab the work-piece. The lower court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment under governmental immunity, and the defendant appealed.
MCL 691.1407(2) provides qualified government immunity from tort liability to government employees acting within the scope of their authority and engaging in the exercise of a government function, provided the employee’s conduct does not amount to gross negligence that is the proximate cause of the injury or damage. Therefore, in order to have survived the defendant’s motion for summary disposition, the plaintiff was required to show that there was an issue of material fact both on the element of gross negligence and on the element of proximate cause.
The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s denial of summary disposition to the defendant. First, it held that the plaintiff showed there was an issue of material fact on the element of gross negligence. Specifically, there was sufficient evidence to show that the defendant, through her affirmative actions, showed a willful disregard for professionally accepted safety standards, displayed a singular disregard for substantial risks on the day of the injury, and sought to cover up her actions in the immediate aftermath. The evidence was therefore sufficient to create a factual dispute on the issue of gross negligence.
The court next held there was an issue of material fact on the element of proximate cause. The evidence suggested that the cause of the kickback and the resulting injury was the absence of the blade guard. And even discounting the plaintiff’s evidence about the defendant actively discouraging students from using the blade guard, suggesting to them that in “real life” the blade guard would not be used, and inferring that the blade guard’s purpose was simply to appease the insurance company, the defendant has essentially conceded that she was the cause of the blade guard’s absence. She acknowledged that she would have been the last one to remove the blade guard. And while she vigorously disputed the plaintiff’s testimony about her overall approach to classroom safety and about her references to insurance company inspections, the defendant testified that she instructed students that the use of the blade guard was optional and that she told her students that the operation of the table saw without the guard did not make the use of the saw any less safe. Therefore, there was sufficient evidence for a trier of fact to determine that the defendant’s actions were the proximate cause of the blade guard’s absence and of the plaintiff’s injury.
The personal injury attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent families 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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