Governmental Immunity in Michigan - Michigan Supreme Court Ruling

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Governmental Immunity in Michigan – What To Look For In 2015

In my last blog, I discussed what the Michigan legislature has in store in 2015 regarding the Michigan no-fault law. This article will discuss an important ruling that is expected to come down from the Michigan Supreme Court in 2015.

The New Year will bring a very important decision from the Michigan Supreme Court regarding Michigan car accident law. The Court will issue rulings on whether or not pain and suffering damages and lost wages are available against a municipality for injuries sustained by a governmental owned motor vehicle.

In October, the Michigan Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two cases, Hunter v City of Flint Transportation Department and Hannay v Department of Transportation. Specifically, the Court will address the “motor vehicle exception” to governmental immunity.

Under Michigan law, cities, counties and other municipalities cannot be sued for personal injury except in certain circumstances. One of those exceptions is the “motor vehicle exception.”  Under this exception, a municipality owned motor vehicle that causes a car crash resulting in personal injury is liable for pain and suffering, lost wages and other damages. The motor vehicle exception states:

“Governmental agencies shall be liable for bodily injury and property damages resulting from the negligent operation by any . . . employee of the governmental agency, of a motor vehicle of which the governmental agency is owner . . . ” MCL 691.1405.

For decades, this exception was undisturbed and allowed people injured due to the negligence of city employees operating city vehicles to obtain compensation for their pain and suffering.  However, in 2013 the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in Hunter v City of Flint Transportation Department that people injured by governmental owned vehicles cannot recover damages for pain and suffering or emotional distress.

The Court of Appeals held that because emotional damages – such as pain and suffering – are not a “bodily injury”, they are not recoverable as contemplated under MCL 691.1405. In so ruling, the Court said that “bodily injury” has traditionally understood to mean actual physical harm to the human body. Because “bodily injury” encompasses only “a physical or corporeal injury to the body,” the plaintiff could not recover for damages for pain and suffering, shock and emotional damage.

A different panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in Hannay v Department of Transportation that a woman injured by a state owned vehicle could recover lost wage benefits under the “motor vehicle exception.”  In a holding that was almost the exact opposite of Hunter v City of Flint Transportation Department, the Court held “damages for work loss and loss of services are not independent causes of action, but are merely types of items or damages that may be recovered because of bodily injury sustained by plaintiff.”  As a result, plaintiff’s can sue a governmental agency for lost wages due to the negligence of a governmental motor vehicle.

The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in both Hunter and Hannay will have far reaching effects.  Basically, the Court’s rulings will decide whether or not governmental agencies can be held accountable for their employees’ decisions and actions.

If the Supreme Court ignores decades of Michigan law allowing individuals to obtain compensation for pain and suffering or lost wages due to the negligence of a governmental owned vehicle, then city and county drivers face literally no repercussions for their actions.

Such an outcome would be an absolute travesty. For more than a hundred years, Michigan law has allowed people to seek compensation for their pain and suffering and emotional distress due to the negligence of another person or entity. Likewise, the term “bodily injury” is a term of art utilized since the 19th Century to mean all injuries – physical and emotional – that result due to the negligence of someone else.

The term “bodily injury” is not defined or modified by MCL 691.1405 or similar governmental immunity statutes. Just because a police car or city dump truck is involved does not change the calculus. As a result, the term “bodily injury” must be given its intended meaning, as described in Hannay, as allowing pain and suffering, lost wages and similar types of items or damages that may be recovered because of the physical harm sustained by the accident victim.

A contrary holding by the Michigan Supreme Court would result in guilty drivers getting away with almost anything on Michigan roads. Perhaps most damaging, those guilty drivers would be governmental employees and municipalities, the very people and entities so duty bound to uphold the law and protect the public.

The Lee Steinberg Law Firm, P.C. (Call Lee Free) will watch these rulings closely.  Let’s hope in the New Year the Michigan Supreme Court chooses wisdom and sound legal reasoning rather than the wishes of insurance companies and municipalities.