Michigan Court Reverses Grant of Summary Disposition to Power Company in Wrongful Death Case

Plaintiff Ralph Skidmore sued Consumer Energy Company (Consumer) under MCR 2.116(C)(10) for wrongful death after his wife was killed by a power line. The trial court granted summary disposition to the defendant, reasoning that Consumer did not owe Catherine a duty because it was unforeseeable that she would run across her neighbor’s dark yard to warn him of a fire resulting from a broken power line. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed and remanded.According to Ralph’s testimony, on the evening of July 19, 2011, he was getting ready for bed when Catherine began screaming that the neighbor’s van was on fire. Ralph looked out the window and noticed fire coming from the van, which had a broken power line on top of it. Catherine thought the van might explode and was worried for her neighbor. Ralph testified that Catherine “bolted out of the house” to warn Roody Cooper.

According to Cooper, he heard a loud boom followed by a flash. He looked outside, noticed flashing sparks, and called 911. Cooper saw Catherine on his porch, yelling to him that there was a fire. He shouted back that he had noticed. As he moved to the other end of his house, he heard a sharp crack and yelling.

Cooper and other witnesses testified that Cooper’s yard was dark, and they could not tell where the line was in the yard. They warned Catherine to stop, but they could not tell if she heard them. Ralph noticed a wire twist around Catherine’s legs. She began shaking and caught on fire.

At trial,  residents testified at length as to the neighborhood’s history of frequent power outages and electrical problems, dating back about 25 years. Skidmore’s expert opined that Consumer lacked a “systematic inspection system” necessary for the maintenance of power lines. A second expert opined that Catherine’s death was caused by poor vegetation management, and that Consumer violated industry standards by failing to conduct preventative trimming.

In July 2014, two years after the case was initiated, Consumer filed a motion for summary disposition. Consumer argued that it was not reasonably foreseeable that Catherine would run into a broken power line. Following a hearing, the trial court agreed that Catherine’s actions were not reasonable, and therefore Consumer did not owe her a duty. It granted the defendant’s motion for summary disposition. Skidmore appealed.

To prove negligence, a plaintiff must show that:  (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) the plaintiff was injured; and (4) the defendant’s breach caused the plaintiff’s injury.  The Michigan Supreme Court has held that “a power company has an obligation to reasonable inspect and repair wires and other instrumentalities in order to discover and remedy hazards and defects.”

If it was not foreseeable that the defendant’s conduct could pose a risk of injury, there is no duty of care. The court concluded that Catherine’s injury was in fact foreseeable. Michigan Supreme Court precedent explains that the foreseeability of an injury depends in part on the expected uses of the area. Here, the surrounding area was residential. It was foreseeable that people would be using it and would be at risk if the power line fell. It was thus reasonably foreseeable that an injury would follow from failing to inspect and maintain the power line. It was also reasonably foreseeable that residents would act in response to an emergency. Rescuers, however, must act reasonably.

The appeals court concluded that there was an issue of material fact as to whether Catherine acted reasonably. Summary disposition is inappropriate when there exists a genuine issue of material fact. Accordingly, the trial court erred when it granted summary disposition on the basis that Consumer did not owe Catherine a duty. The court of appeals reversed and remanded.

Personal injury lawyer Kelly Neumann at the Neumann Law Group represents accident victims 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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Flint Residents Sue for Contaminated Water, Michigan Injury Lawyer Blog, January 18, 2016.

Wife Sues Midland County for Wrongful Death Following Jail Incident, Michigan Injury Lawyer Blog, January 11, 2016.

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