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Gurley v Gartha, et al (COA – UNP 1/13/2022; RB #4378)

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Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #356988; Unpublished
Judges Boonstra, Cavanagh, and Riordan; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion


STATUTORY INDEXING:
Serious Impairment of Body Function Definition (McCormick Era: 2010 – present) [§3135(5)**]
Objective Manifestation Element of Serious Impairment (McCormick Era: 2010 – present) [§3135(5)**]
Important Body Function Element of Serious Impairment (McCormick Era: 2010 – present) [§3135(5)**]
General Ability / Normal Life Element of Serious Impairment (McCormick Era: 2010 – present) [§3135(5)**]
Causation Issues [§3135]

TOPICAL INDEXING:
Motor-Vehicle Exception to Governmental Tort Liability Act


SUMMARY:
In this unanimous, unpublished, per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals (1) affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition order dismissing Plaintiff Jerilyn Nadine Gurley’s third-party action against Defendant Russell Charles Gartha, a police officer for Defendant City of Southfield (or “the City”), in which Gurley alleged that Gartha acted with gross negligence in causing the subject motor vehicle collision, but (2) reversed the trial court’s summary disposition order dismissing Gurley’s third-party action against the City of Southfield. With respect to Gurley’s claim against Gartha, the Court of Appeals held that Gartha was not grossly negligent by proceeding into an intersection under a red light, without his lights or siren activated, while responding to a call from a fellow officer for assistance. With respect to Gurley’s claim against the City of Southfield pursuant the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity, the Court of Appeals held that Gurley presented sufficient evidence to create a question of fact as to whether she suffered a serious impairment of body function as a result of the collision between her vehicle and Gartha’s police cruiser.

Russell Charles Gartha was working as a police officer for the City of Southfield when he received a call from a fellow officer requesting backup. Gartha began driving to the other officer’s location, without his lights or siren activated, when he came upon a red light at an intersection. Gartha braked before reaching the intersection, but then proceeded into the intersection despite the red light, believing that he could do so safely. At the same time, Jerilyn Nadine Gurley entered the intersection from a different direction under a green light, and the two vehicles collided.

The day after the collision, Gurley began experiencing a headache and pain in her neck and eyes. She presented to the hospital and underwent a CT scan of her head and neck, both of which were unremarkable. She later received treatment from various other doctors, one of whom, Dr. Louis Radden, had Gurley undergo an MRI of her spine, which revealed “cervical disc herniation at C4-5, C5-6 and C6-7; disc bulge at C7-T1; cervical facet syndrome; cervical sprain/strain[,]” and “lumbar disc bulge at [sic] L4-S and LS-51, lumbar facet syndrome, [and] lumbar sprain strain.” Based on this MRI, Dr. Radden concludedthat Gurley’s “ ‘injuries [were] related to the motor vehicle accident,’ ” and ordered that she refrain from doing housework and recreational activities.

Gurley filed a third-party action against Gartha, personally—alleging gross negligence—and against the City of Southfield, pursuant to the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity. Gartha and the City moved for summary disposition, arguing that Gurley failed to establish (1) that Gartha acted with gross negligence and (2) that she suffered a serious impairment of body function, caused by the collision. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition order dismissing Gurley’s gross negligence claim against Gartha, holding that Gartha’s actions constituted ordinary, not gross, negligence. In support of the its holding, the Court adduced the fact that Gartha braked before proceeding into the intersection, and Gartha’s testimony that “[h]e believed that he had a clear line of sight through the intersection.” Based on this evidence, the Court determined that Gartha did not act with “ ‘a singular disregard for substantial risk’ to other,” as is required for gross negligence.

“We acknowledge that Gartha attempted to proceed through the intersection despite the fact that the light was red and he did not have his emergency signal activated. These facts, as Gartha himself admits, indicate that he acted negligently. However, we agree with the trial court that Gartha was not grossly negligent. He believed that he had a clear line of sight through the intersection and was following a police vehicle immediately before him. This shows that Gartha did not enter the intersection recklessly, but instead had thoughtful, valid reasons for believing that doing so was safe. Moreover, Gartha slowed his vehicle before entering the intersection in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of causing an accident. In light of these facts, particularly the fact that Gartha slowed his vehicle, it cannot be said that he exhibited 'a singular disregard for substantial risks' to others. See Tarlea, 263 Mich App at 90. Therefore, Gartha was not grossly negligent, and the trial court did not err in granting him summary disposition on this basis.”

The Court of Appeals reversed the part of the trial court’s summary disposition order, however, in which the trial court determined, as a matter of law, that Gurley had not suffered a serious impairment of body function as a result of the collision. The Court of Appeals held that Gurley’s medical records from her treatment with Dr. Radden, alone, were sufficient to create a question of fact as to all three prongs of the test for serious impairment of body function set forth in McCormick, as well as to the issue of causation.

“On the basis of this MRI and other treatments, Dr. Radden repeatedly concluded in his medical records that plaintiff’s ‘injuries [were] related to the motor vehicle accident.’ Further, Dr. Radden wrote that ‘[a]s a result of the injuries received in this accident, I have disabled [plaintiff] from’ housework such as carrying groceries and recreational activities that include ‘prolonged standing or sitting.’ Dr. Radden’s medical opinion in this regard was sufficient to establish a question of fact as to whether plaintiff suffered spinal injury that was caused by the accident at issue and that may have resulted in a serious impairment of body function. . . .

With regard to the second question, whether plaintiff established a question of fact as to a ‘serious impairment of body function’ as defined by MCL 500.3135(5), we conclude that the trial court erred in ruling that plaintiff failed to do so. In addition to Dr. Radden’s medical records, plaintiff herself explained that her ability to sit, travel in a vehicle for long distances, complete housework and yardwork, wear high heels, and volunteer with her church as she did before the accident were substantially impaired after the accident as a consequence of her injury. Although defendants argued that plaintiff’s injuries may have been caused by a preexisting degenerative condition or prior motor vehicle accident, the evidence offered by plaintiff was nonetheless sufficient to avoid summary disposition.

As noted previously, McCormick provides that a ‘serious impairment of body function’ under MCL 500.3135(5) requires three elements: (1) ‘an objectively manifested impairment,’ (2) ‘of an important body function,’ and (3) ‘affects the person’s general ability to lead his or her normal life.’ McCormick, 487 Mich at 215. Concerning the first element, as explained, Dr. Radden’s medical records established a question of fact as to an objectively manifested impairment. See Guerrero v Smith, 280 Mich App 647, 663; 761 NW2d 723 (2008) (noting that muscle spasms and loss of normal lordotic curve, i.e., the cervical spine, may qualify as objective manifestations of injury). Concerning the second element, the use of one’s back and associated abilities to move are important body functions that may be impaired by a motor vehicle injury for the purposes of MCL 500.3135. See Harris v Lemicex, 152 Mich App 149, 153-154; 393 NW2d 559 (1986). Plaintiff has established a question of fact in this regard. Concerning the third element, the injury allegedly affected plaintiff’s general ability to lead her normal life as evidenced by plaintiff’s deposition testimony and medical records, the fact that Dr. Radden continued to recommend physical therapy through October 2020, plaintiff’s inability to perform household tasks or participate in preaccident activities for over six months, and plaintiff’s residual back and neck pain. Because there is no express temporal requirement regarding how long the impairment must last and no requirement of permanency to meet the serious impairment threshold, plaintiff’s inability to lead her normal life since the accident occurred arguably amounted to a serious impairment of body function for the purposes of MCL 500.3135(5). See McCormick, 487 Mich at 203.”


Lansing car accident lawyer Stephen Sinas is the lead editor of the appellate case summaries published on this site regarding the Michigan auto insurance law. To learn more about how Stephen Sinas and how the Sinas Dramis Law Firm can help you if you have been injured in a Michigan auto accident, visit SinasDramis.com.

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