State Supreme Court Holds Appeals Court Misunderstood Proximate Cause in Michigan Personal Injury Case

The Michigan Supreme Court recently reversed a decision from the Michigan Court of Appeals, holding the appeals court misapplied proximate cause law in determining whether the defendant proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. In the fall of 2011, the then-13-year-old plaintiff was a member of the Chelsea High School cross-country team. Shortly after the season began, the coach held an early morning practice; it was the plaintiff’s first morning practice as a member of the team. The practice began at 5:59 a.m., when it was still dark outside. At the beginning of practice, the coach took the team off school grounds to run. During the run, the team approached an intersection with a two-lane highway. The “Do Not Walk” symbol was illuminated because the traffic light was green for the highway traffic. The coach and the group of runners with him stopped at the intersection. He saw a vehicle in the distance, but he determined that it was far enough away to safely cross. He instructed the runners to cross the intersection by stating, “Let’s go.” It was unclear whether all of the team members heard the instruction. Although most of the team safely crossed the road, a few runners in the back of the group were still in or near the roadway when the vehicle entered the intersection. The vehicle hit the plaintiff and one of his teammates as they were crossing the road. The plaintiff was severely injured, and he has no memory of the accident.

The plaintiffs, the victim and his parents, sued the coach and the driver. The coach moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), asserting governmental immunity pursuant to the government tort liability act (GTLA). He also moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(8) and (10). The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, stating that whether the defendant’s actions were grossly negligent and whether his actions were the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries were questions of fact for the jury to decide.

The defendant appealed, and the court of appeals reversed. The panel concluded that any factual disputes were not material because reasonable minds could not conclude that the defendant was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. The panel determined that the presence of the driver in the roadway and the plaintiff’s own actions were more immediate and direct causes of the plaintiff’s injuries and held that the most proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries was the fact that he was struck by a moving vehicle.

The plaintiff appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court. At issue was whether the conduct of the coach, a government employee, was—for the purposes of the GTLA—”the proximate cause” of the injuries suffered by the plaintiff.

The Michigan Supreme Court held that the court of appeals’ proximate cause inquiry confused proximate cause with cause in fact. The court focused on whether the plaintiff, the driver of the vehicle, and the vehicle itself were factual causes of the plaintiff’s injuries. This was a necessary inquiry because one’s conduct cannot be the proximate cause without also being a factual cause. The panel’s error was in its next step. Weighing these factual causes against the defendant’s actions, the court of appeals concluded that there were obviously more immediate, efficient, and direct causes of the plaintiff’s injuries than the defendant’s conduct. According to the panel, clearly the most proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries was the fact that he was struck by a moving vehicle.

The court of appeals’ analysis, the state high court explained, failed to properly distinguish between factual causation and legal causation. The panel did not assess the legal responsibility of any of the actors involved, but instead it attempted to discern whether any of the other factual causes was a more direct cause of the plaintiff’s injury than the defendant’s actions. The state supreme court held this was an error. Determining whether an actor’s conduct was “the proximate cause” under the GTLA does not involve a weighing of factual causes. Instead, as long as the defendant is a factual cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, the court should address legal causation by assessing foreseeability and whether the defendant’s conduct was the proximate cause.

To the extent the court of appeals’ opinion attempted to analyze this issue, the appeals court explained, its analysis was incomplete. An appropriate proximate cause analysis should have considered the conduct and any legal responsibility of the defendant, the plaintiff, and the driver of the vehicle that struck the plaintiff. Furthermore, before an actor can be a proximate cause, there must be the prerequisite determination that the actor was negligent—that is, that the actor breached a duty. In this case, the panel never determined whether the driver was negligent. Without that determination, his actions could not be a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
Similarly, the supreme court held the panel failed to correctly analyze whether the plaintiff was negligent and a proximate cause of his own injuries. At the time of the accident, the plaintiff was 13 years old. Unlike adults, who are held to the reasonable person standard, determining whether a child was negligent requires the application of a subjective standard. The court must assess whether the child acted with the degree of care that would reasonably be expected of a child of similar age, intelligence, capacity, and experience under the circumstances of the case. The court of appeals erred by singularly focusing on the plaintiff’s age without also considering the plaintiff’s subjective characteristics and the relevant factual context.

Finally, the supreme court explained, even if the panel had determined that another actor was negligent and was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, it still would have needed to determine whether the defendant’s actions were “the proximate cause.” This would require considering the defendant’s actions alongside any other potential proximate causes to determine whether the defendant’s actions were, or could have been, “the one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause” of the injuries. If, on the basis of the evidence presented, reasonable minds could not differ on this question, the motion for summary disposition should be granted. Since the court of appeals did not consider these issues in the first instance, the supreme court remanded to the appeals court for reconsideration.

The car accident attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent 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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