Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket # 347868; Unpublished
Judges Redford, Meter, and O’Brien; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion
Motor Vehicle Exception to Governmental Tort Liability Act
In this unanimous unpublished per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of defendant Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation’s (SMART) motion for summary disposition, in which SMART sought dismissal of Plaintiff August Schutt’s third-party action against it. The Court of Appeals held that there was no evidence that the driver of the SMART bus on which Schutt was injured drove the bus in a negligent or grossly negligent manner, merely by accelerating before Schutt sat down and braking for a yellow light.
Schutt entered a SMART bus being driven by SMART employee Ruby Thomas, and before Schutt was able to sit down in his seat, Thomas closed the bus doors, eased off the brakes, and began driving. Schutt moved to the seating area of the bus and set down his belongings before supporting himself with a handrail. At some point thereafter, Schutt began fumbling with his belongings and took his hand off the handrail. At the same time, Thomas braked for a yellow light, and Schutt fell backward onto the floor of the bus, fracturing his right hip. At the time of Schutt’s fall, Thomas was driving between 23 and 24 miles per hour in a 35 miles-per-hour zone.
Schutt subsequently filed a third-party action against SMART, alleging that Thomas was negligent or grossly negligent in her operation of the bus, and that SMART was vicariously liable. SMART moved for summary disposition, arguing that the motor-vehicle vehicle exception to governmental immunity did not apply because Thomas’s actions fell under the usual-incidents-of-travel doctrine, and that braking for a traffic signal was not grossly negligent. Ultimately, the trial court denied SMART’s motion, finding that reasonable minds could differ about whether Thomas was negligent by accelerating before Schutt sat down, and that such an action fell outside the scope of the usual-incidents-of-travel doctrine. The trial court also denied SMART’s motion as to Schutt’s claim of gross negligence, finding that reasonable minds could differ about whether Thomas operated the bus with a substantial lack of concern for whether her actions would cause injury to Schutt.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of SMART’s summary disposition order, noting firstly that the Michigan Supreme Court established more than 100 years ago that it is acceptable for a streetcar or bus operator to accelerate before a passenger reaches his or her seat after entering the vehicle. The Court of Appeals held that nothing about Thomas’s actions could be characterized as negligent, and that the action of stopping for a yellow light that is turning red is, in fact, a normal incident of travel, even if the stop is sudden. Thus, the motor-vehicle exception to governmental did not apply, and Schutt’s claim for negligent operation of a motor vehicle was barred by governmental immunity.
With this error corrected, the outcome on appeal is straight forward. While operating the bus, Thomas braked for a yellow light that was turning red, causing plaintiff to fall. “It is well- settled that, absent evidence of other negligence pertaining to the operation of a bus, a plaintiff bus passenger may not recover for injuries sustained when the bus suddenly stopped because such stops are normal incidents of travel.” Seldon v Suburban Mobility Auth for Regional Transp, 297 Mich App 427, 437; 824 NW2d 318 (2012). See, e.g., Russ v Detroit, 333 Mich 505, 508; 53 NW2d 353 (1952) (sudden stop does not create liability); Zawicky v Flint Trolley Coach Co, Inc, 288 Mich 655, 658-659; 286 NW 115 (1939) (ordinary sudden jerks and jolts are normal incidents of travel); Sherman v Flint Trolley Coach, Inc, 304 Mich 404, 416; 8 NW2d 115 (1943) (mere sudden stop to retrieve passenger is not actionable negligence). The record contains no evidence that, other than stopping, Thomas operated the bus negligently; there is no evidence that she was intoxicated or otherwise impaired, she was traveling well within the 35 mile-per-hour speed limit, and she began braking for a yellow light that was turning red, as required by law. See MCL 257.612(1)(b). While Thomas’s stop may arguably have been sudden, sudden stops are normal incidents of travel. Seldon, 297 Mich App at 437. No reasonable juror could conclude that the stop was so sudden as to be considered “unnecessarily sudden or violent” such that defendants could be liable. See Getz, 372 Mich at 101-102 (quotation marks and citation omitted). Thus, based on the evidence presented, no reasonable juror could conclude that Thomas was negligent in her operation of the bus. Consequently, the motor-vehicle exception to governmental immunity does not apply, and plaintiff’s claim is barred by governmental immunity.
The Court of Appeals further held that no objective observer could conclude that Thomas’s actions were grossly negligent. To the contrary, the Court deemed Thomas’s actions “normal,” and certainly not “‘so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results.’”