Michigan Appellate Court Holds Trial Court Improperly Analyzed GTLA

The Michigan Court of Appeals for the First District recently reversed a trial court’s denial of a defendant city’s motion for summary judgment following a plaintiff’s fall on city pavement. The appeals court found the trial court’s decision ran contrary to binding precedent regarding the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA).Plaintiff Kathrine Curtis tripped and fell, injuring her ankle, after a misstep on a tree grate in the middle of a sidewalk that ran alongside a parking lot owned by the defendant (the city of Charlevoix). Both the parking lot and the sidewalk ran perpendicular to and connected with two parallel city streets.

The defendant moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), asserting that the sidewalk was not adjacent to a public highway, and therefore the highway exception to governmental immunity, MCL 691.1402, did not apply. The defendant argued that, pursuant to MCL 691.1402, the plaintiff had to show that she fell on a sidewalk adjacent to a public highway outside the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular traffic. At the hearing on the motion, the trial court referenced Black’s Law Dictionary, using the definition “‘lying near or close to, but not necessarily touching.’ And then as a comparison it gives ‘adjoining.'”

Applying this definition, the lower court concluded:  “It’s obviously more closely associated with that parking lot, which is not a public highway under the definitions of these statutory sections, but I think it’s close enough to Mason Street and Antrim Streets to meet the definition of adjacent under Black’s Law Dictionary.” Accordingly, the trial court denied the defendant’s motion for summary disposition. The defendant appealed.

In reversing, the appeals court first explained that the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), MCL 691.1402, broadly shields a governmental agency from tort liability “if the governmental agency is engaged in the exercise or discharge of a governmental function.” However, pursuant to the “highway exception,” “a municipal corporation in which a sidewalk is installed adjacent to a municipal, county, or state highway shall maintain the sidewalk in reasonable repair.” The statutory scheme defines “sidewalk” but not “adjacent”: “‘sidewalk’ […] means a paved public sidewalk intended for pedestrian use situated outside of and adjacent to the improved portion of a highway designed for vehicular travel.”

At the hearing, the focus of the parties’ arguments was on the meaning of “adjacent” as defined in Black’s Law Dictionary. The lower court applied this definition, noting that the sidewalk in question looked like the sidewalks running along the public streets and that it was a “perpendicular continuation” of those sidewalks. It was “lying near or close to but not necessarily touching the sidewalks, and both of those public roads.” The lower court found this met the definition of “adjacent to” and accordingly denied the defendant’s motion.

The appeals court held that the trial court erred by focusing on the dictionary meaning of “adjacent” while failing to recognize that case law regarding the meaning of “sidewalk” is specific. “[A] sidewalk is a path for pedestrians along the side of a road.” Michigan precedent makes clear that the critical inquiry is whether the injury occurred on a portion of the sidewalk that runs adjacent to a public roadway. The word “sidewalk” itself inherently includes the requirement that the walkway runs alongside a road. Here, the trial court erroneously concluded that the pavement where Curtis was injured–a walkway that ran alongside a drive-through parking lot and connected at either end to parallel city streets–was adjacent to those streets.

Since this decision was contrary to binding caselaw, the appeals court reversed.

The premises liability attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent injured people 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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