Motor-Vehicle Exception to Governmental Tort Liability Act
In this majority unpublished per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trail court’s denial of defendants’ motion for summary disposition on the basis of governmental immunity. The Court held that a question of fact existed as to whether defendant police officer Ashley Kofahl’s actions constituted negligent operation of a vehicle and gross negligence, and was the “most immediate, efficient, and direct cause of the plaintiff’s injury.”
Plaintiff Anthony Collins was injured when Kofahl, driving in a marked police vehicle owned by co-defendant City of Ypsilanti, crashed into his vehicle at an intersection. At the time of the accident, Kofahl was responding to a silent alarm at a local business. Just prior to reaching the intersection, Kofahl was notified that it was a false alarm, prompting her to deactivate her emergency lights and the vehicle’s siren. As she entered the intersection, at the time of the accident, Kofahl was traveling almost twice the posted speed limit. Collins filed a complaint against defendants, alleging negligence, liability, and gross negligence; defendants moved for summary disposition, arguing that Collins’ claims were barred by governmental immunity. The trial court disagreed with defendants, and denied summary disposition.
The Court of Appeals first determined that this case fell under the motor-vehicle exception to the governmental tort liability act, so long as Collins could prove negligent operation of a government-owned motor vehicle, and that Kofahl was not protected by any statute that would otherwise allow police officers to exceed the posted speed limit. The Court reasoned:
Thus, both MCL 257.632 and MCL 257.603 would have permitted Kofahl to disregard the speed limit under certain circumstances, but at the time of the crash, those circumstances did not exist. Kofahl was no longer responding to an emergency as she had been notified that it was a false alarm, and, in any event, she did not have her emergency lights activated when she crashed into Collins’s vehicle. Thus, given her speed at the time of the crash, there is a rebuttable presumption of negligence. Klanseck, 426 Mich at 86. Moreover, even without the presumption, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Collins, a reasonable jury could conclude that the decision to proceed through the intersection while travelling 57 miles per hour2 in a 30 mile per hour zone during rush hour traffic3 without any emergency lights or sirens was a violation of the general duty of care a driver owes other motorists.
The Court of Appeals also determined that a question of fact existed as to whether Kofahl had the right of way, despite the fact that Collins was making a left turn at the intersection and would typically have to cede the right of way to oncoming traffic before turning. The Court of Appeals ruled that, “although the light was green, [Kofahl] did not have the legal right-of-way because she was travelling at an unlawful speed. See MCL 257.649(7).” Moreover, a question of fact existed as to whether Collins did in fact see Kofahl’s emergency lights prior to deactivation, in which case he would have been required to yield to her.
The Court of Appeals disagreed with Kofahl and the City of Ypsilanti’s other contentions: (1) “that Kofahl’s decision to turn off her emergency lights was not part of the operation of the vehicle, so the motor-vehicle exception does not apply;” (2) “that Kofahl is entitled to immunity pursuant to the gross negligence exception for individual governmental employees or officers;” and (3) that Kofahl was not the proximate cause of Collins’s injuries. Questions of fact existed as to each of these contentions, and thus summary disposition would be improper. The Court concluded:
The trial court correctly held that a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Kofahl’s speeding constituted the negligent operation of the vehicle and Kofahl’s conduct in going nearly twice the speed limit in downtown Ypsilanti could reasonably constitute gross negligence that was “the one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause of the plaintiff’s injury.” Accordingly, the trial court did not err in denying defendants’ motion for summary disposition on the basis of governmental immunity.
Justice Boonstra, concurring, reasoned:
. . . I agree that there is in this case at least a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Officer Kofahl’s actions, if found to be grossly negligent, and if found to be a cause in fact and a legal cause of plaintiff’s injury, were “the proximate cause” of the accident. However, I would base that conclusion on the long-standing principle that intervening causes based in ordinary, rather than gross, negligence are generally considered reasonably foreseeable and are not superseding . . . In other words, because there has yet been no determination of the degree of plaintiff’s negligence (if any), there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether plaintiff’s conduct in turning into the intersection was foreseeable or, alternatively, whether it was a non-foreseeable, superseding cause that cut off defendant’s liability.