Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket # 351921; Unpublished
Judges Ronayne Krause, Riordan, and O’Brien; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion
In this unanimous unpublished per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of Defendant City of Detroit’s motion for summary disposition, in which the City sought to dismiss Plaintiff Estate of Robert Woolen’s third-party action against it. The Court of Appeals held that a question of fact existed as to whether the Woolen Estate’s lawsuit implicated the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity. More specifically, the Court held that a question of fact existed as to whether the City of Detroit’s bus driver acted negligently in abruptly braking and changing lanes in order to allegedly avoid hitting a motor vehicle that pulled out in front of him. The Court also held, based on the facts of the case, that a question of fact existed as to whether the “sudden emergency doctrine” barred the Woolen Estate’s cause of action.
This case arose from an incident in which Robert Woolen was injured while riding a City of Detroit bus operated by City employee Kashawn Nichols. As the bus was traveling down the road, a Chevy Impala turned in front of it. Nichols blew his horn to warn the driver of the Impala, but the driver proceeded to pull out in front of the bus regardless. In response, Nichols moved into the left lane, but the Impala moved into the left lane, too. The Impala thenattempted aU-turn in front of the bus, forcing Nichols to slam on the brakes. As a result of the abruptness of Nichols’s braking, a passenger on the bus, Robert Woolen, fell out of his seat and broke his arm. Woolen’s Estate later sued for negligent operation of the bus and the City moved for summary disposition, arguingthat it was afforded immunity by the Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”) and the “sudden emergency doctrine.” The trial court dismissed Defendant’s motion because a question of fact existed as to whether Nichols was negligent in switching lanes and abruptly braking when he could have gradually slowed to a brake, and further, because a question of fact existed as to the applicability of the “sudden emergency doctrine.”
On appeal, the Court of Appeals first held that a question of fact existed as to whether Nichols was negligent in his operation of the bus, and therefore whether the Woolen Estate’s claim could proceed pursuant to the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity. The Court noted that there was conflicting evidence as to whether Nichols needed to switch lanes and slam on his brakes or whether he could have safely come to a gradual stop.
On one hand, there are multiple facts in the record supporting the conclusion that Nichols did not act negligently. Nichols slowed down as soon as the Impala pulled in front of the bus. Nichols was not speeding, and his conformance with the speed limit does not necessarily imply or prove that he could have stopped in time to avoid colliding with the Impala. Nichols also honked the bus horn at the Impala to alert the driver of the situation and testified at his deposition that the driver acknowledged the bus’s presence. The fact that Nichols honked the horn to alert the other driver weighs against a finding of negligence, since it shows that Nichols was alert to the situation and warned the other driver of their possible collision as soon as he saw the Impala.
On the other hand, as plaintiff contends, Nichols’s acknowledgement that he would have been able to come to a complete stop without hitting the Impala might mean that he should have stopped and that changing lanes was not a reasonable action, at least where the Impala would be expected to change lanes as well in response to the bus horn. In addition, the fact that Nichols failed to mention in his incident report that the Impala stopped or slowed in front of the bus indicates that this detail, if it occurred, was not a significant contribution to the overall urgent circumstances. That is, a jury could find that Nichols was not compelled to change lanes in response to the Impala and that the reasonable response would have simply been to remain in the same lane and apply the brakes if the Impala remained in the same lane as well. Therefore, although it is certainly a close call, as noted by the trial court, we conclude that it correctly ruled that there was a question of fact regarding Nichols’s alleged negligence, and by extension, the applicability of the motor-vehicle exception to the GTLA.
The Court next turned to the applicability of the “sudden emergency doctrine,” and held that the applicability of the “sudden emergency doctrine” is a question for a jury, especially considering that a question of fact existed as to whether the Impala pulling out in front of the bus constituted an emergency situation.
In this case, defendant argues that it is not liable under the sudden-emergency doctrine because Nichols was faced with an emergency situation occasioned by the Impala’s hesitation or stopping in the pathway of the bus after it pulled out into oncoming traffic. Plaintiff, however, noting that it has been well-established our Supreme Court that the issue of whether a driver experienced a sudden emergency is a question of fact for the jury, White v Taylor Distrib Co, 482 Mich 136, 143; 753 NW2d 591 (2008), argues that the issue of whether Nichols faced a sudden emergency should be reserved for the jury in this case.
Having found that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding Nichols’s negligence, and more specifically whether an emergent situation was presented because of the dispute regarding the Impala’s hesitation, the applicability of the sudden-emergency doctrine requires resolution by a jury. In other words, the question here is whether a sudden emergency existed in the first instance, not whether Nichols acted non-negligently as a matter of law in responding to that emergency. Arguably, if the Impala did not significantly slow or stop in the bus’s lane, then Nichols was not presented with a sufficient sudden emergency to warrant application of the sudden-emergency doctrine. Consequently, defendant is not entitled to summary disposition on this basis.