Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #359478; Unpublished
Judges Cavanagh, Kelly, and Garrett; 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In this unanimous, unpublished, per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of Defendant Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation’s (“SMART”) motion for summary disposition, in which it sought dismissal of Plaintiff Samone Johnson’s auto negligence action. The Court of Appeals held that a question of fact existed as to whether Ronald Pressley—the driver of the SMART bus Johnson was traveling on—was negligent in rear-ending a vehicle whose driver, Shane Webster, changed into Pressley’s lane, then slammed on his brakes to avoid rear-ending the vehicle in front of him.
Ronald Pressley was driving a SMART bus during rush-hour traffic in Detroit, when another vehicle, driven by Shane Webster, turned into Pressley’s lane and abruptly braked. Pressley slammed on his brakes to avoid rear-ending Webster’s vehicle, but could not do so in time, and Samone Johnson, a passenger on the SMART bus, was injured as a result. After the crash, Johnson filed an auto negligence action against SMART and Webster, and a dispute arose regarding negligence and causation. Pressley testified that Webster abruptly changed into his lane before slamming on his brakes too quickly for Pressley to react, but the bus’s dash camera footage appeared to show Pressley observe Webster’s vehicle before it changed into his lane, evidenced by Pressley honking his horn as soon as Webster pulled in front of the bus in the adjacent lane with his turn signal on. Consistent with the video evidence, Webster testified that he believed Pressley saw the turn signal, slowed down, and impliedly offered him an opportunity to enter his lane. SMART nonetheless moved for summary disposition, asserting that Pressley was not negligent in his operation of the bus; that any negligence of Pressley’s was excused because Webster’s actions created a sudden emergency; and that Webster’s actions, not Pressley’s, caused Johnson’s injuries. The trial court disagreed on all accounts, ruling that questions of fact existed regarding causation and negligence, and denied SMART’s motion.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of SMART’s motion, first rejecting SMART’s argument that summary disposition was proper because “the duty sought to be imposed by [Johnson] was too great.” In other words, SMART characterized Johnson’s argument as claiming “Pressley had a duty to foresee and preemptively react to Webster’s decision to unexpectedly change lanes.” The Court clarified that Plaintiff was not making this argument at all—she was merely arguing that “a reasonably prudent common carrier, presented with the same circumstances as Pressley, would have recognized Webster’s approach, observed his turn signal, began braking right away, and avoided the accident.”
The Court of Appeals then held that a question of fact existed as to whether Pressley was negligent in his operation of the bus. Johnson argued that there was a presumption of negligence by Pressley because he rear-ended Webster’s vehicle, in violation of MCL 257.402 (“In any action, in any court in this state when it is shown by competent evidence, that a vehicle traveling in a certain direction, overtook and struck the rear end of another vehicle proceeding in the same direction, or lawfully standing upon any highway within this state, the driver or operator of such first mentioned vehicle shall be deemed prima facie guilty of negligence.”). SMART, on the other hand, argued that the presumption did not apply because Pressley never “overtook” Webster’s vehicle. The Court of appeals agreed with Johnson, finding that the bus clearly “overtook” Webster’s vehicle when it rear-ended him.
“SMART, for its part, fails to fully explain its position regarding application of the statute and how it believes the word ‘overtook’ should be interpreted. The video and all of the witnesses agree the SMART bus and Webster’s Cruze were traveling in the same direction—east on Larned Street—before the accident took place. Right before the accident occurred, Webster’s Cruze was in front of Pressley’s SMART bus. Although it happened quickly, the video and the witnesses also show Pressley’s bus struck the rear end of Webster’s Cruze. Specifically, the bike rack of the SMART bus, which is attached to its front, struck the rear end of Webster’s Cruze. Considering both vehicles were traveling in the same direction at the time of the collision, Pressley’s SMART bus was behind Webster’s Cruze before the collision, and then the bus caught up with, or suddenly came upon the Cruze, the record plainly supports the conclusion the SMART bus ‘overtook’ Webster’s Cruze in the second lane of Larned Street. As succinctly stated by this Court, ‘because [the first party]’s truck undisputedly struck the rear of [the second party]’s vehicle, a rebuttable presumption arose that [the first party] was negligent with regard to the collision.’ White, 275 Mich App at 621. Thus, contrary to the argument by SMART, the rebuttable presumption required by MCL 257.402(a) exists in this case. White, 275 Mich App at 621.”
The Court of Appeals held, second, that a question of fact existed as to whether SMART could invoke the sudden-emergency doctrine. While Pressley argued that Webster unexpectedly changed into his lane and slammed on his brakes before he could react, the video from the bus suggested that Pressley noticed Webster attempting to change into his lane before doing so, and that Pressley had sufficient time to brake and avoid the collision.
“The facts just espoused, which have been stated in a light most favorable to plaintiff, establishes two problems for SMART’s argument regarding the sudden-emergency doctrine. First, an ‘essential’ part of the doctrine is ‘that the potential peril had not been in clear view for any significant length of time . . . .’ Vander Laan, 385 Mich at 232. In the present case, there is an issue of material fact regarding whether the potential peril related to Webster’s Cruze had been in Pressley’s ‘clear view for any significant length of time . . . .’ Id. Pertinently, the evidence would allow for a reasonable juror to determine Pressley saw Webster’s Cruze as it passed the SMART bus and the turn signal became illuminated. Further, the record also supported that, if Pressley had reacted immediately by braking, he would have had time to stop before striking the Cruze. Thus, for purposes of this case, the ‘significant length of time’ involved considerations of whether Pressley had time to avoid the collision if he acted in a reasonable manner. As established by Lieutenant Abbo, there was at least a question of fact whether Pressley saw the potential peril presented by Webster’s Cruze in time to stop safely. Consequently, for this reason alone, there was a question of fact whether SMART could rebut the presumption of negligence by relying on the sudden-emergency doctrine.”
The Court noted a second problem with SMART’s attempted invocation of the sudden-emergency doctrine, which is that it does not apply if ‘the emergency in which [the driver] finds himself is brought about by his own negligence.’ Here, a question existed as to whether “the sudden emergency allegedly faced by Pressley was created by his own negligence of being unaware of his surroundings, honking his horn instead of braking, and unreasonably indicating to Webster he could change lanes.”
“The second problem with SMART’s reliance on the sudden-emergency doctrine involves allegations related to Pressley’s negligence. As noted above, the sudden-emergency doctrine does not apply when ‘the emergency in which [the driver] finds himself is brought about by his own negligence.’ White, 275 Mich App at 622 (quotation marks and citation omitted). In the present case, plaintiff has presented evidence creating a genuine question of material fact whether the alleged sudden emergency faced by Pressley was caused by his own negligence. Specifically, the affidavit from Allen stated that a reasonably prudent common carrier would be aware of his surroundings by using his mirrors. Further, Lieutenant Abbo averred it was unreasonable for Pressley to use his horn instead of beginning to brake immediately. Finally, Webster testified Pressley had given Webster several indications there was adequate room to change lanes. Assuming Webster’s testimony is true, which this Court must for purposes of this appeal, a jury could infer Pressley acted negligently by indicating to Webster he could change lanes when it actually was not safe. Thus, because there also was a question of fact whether the sudden emergency allegedly faced by Pressley was created by his own negligence of being unaware of his surroundings, honking his horn instead of braking, and unreasonably indicating to Webster he could change lanes, a reasonable juror could conclude the sudden-emergency doctrine did not apply. Id. Therefore, SMART’s reliance on the sudden-emergency doctrine did not entitle it to summary disposition. Id.”
Lastly, regarding the sudden emergency doctrine, the Court of Appeals held that there was a question of fact as to whether the doctrine should even apply in this case, given that it only applies when ‘the circumstances surrounding the accident  present a situation that is unusual or unsuspected.’ The Court noted that a reasonable juror could conclude that a vehicle switching lanes and braking during rush-hour traffic is not ‘unusual or unsuspected,’ especially considering the video evidence that Pressley saw Webster activate his turn signal and prepare to turn into his lane.
“The facts of this case show the accident occurred during a sunny, clear day in the summer. The traffic was heavy, but such was expected because it was Friday at about 4:45 p.m. Considering there was no evidence of ‘a phenomenon of nature,’ but instead, showed the ‘everyday traffic routine confronting the motorist,’ the record suggests the circumstances were not unusual as meant under the sudden-emergency doctrine. See id. Moreover, there was at least a question of fact regarding whether a jury would find the circumstances were ‘unsuspected.’ As discussed above, there was evidence presented indicating Pressley saw Webster’s turn signal in time for the bus to safely stop, and Pressley may have even indicated to Webster that he could switch lanes. This is plainly different from Vander Laan, 385 Mich at 232, where the driver did not have time to stop and the other car had not signaled the approaching emergent circumstance in any manner. As noted, Webster did signal he was about to switch lanes, and Lieutenant Abbo claimed Pressley had time to safely stop the bus if he acted reasonably. Moreover, considering the accident occurred during rush-hour traffic in Detroit, a reasonable juror could undoubtedly find that a car suddenly switching lanes and braking is not ‘totally unexpected’ for purposes of applying the sudden-emergency doctrine. Id. Thus, for this reason as well, SMART was not entitled to summary disposition on the basis of the sudden-emergency doctrine.”
The Court then turned to SMART’s arguments regarding causation, first rejecting SMART’s argument that summary disposition was proper because Webster’s negligence—not Pressley’s—proximately caused Johnson’s injuries. The Court iterated that ‘[i]t is not uncommon that more than one proximate cause contributes to an injury,’ and that in this case, there was sufficient evidence to create a question of fact as to whether Pressley’s negligence was at least a proximate cause of Johnson’s injuries.
“Plaintiff presented evidence supporting a legal presumption of negligence by Pressley under MCL 257.402(a). Moreover, plaintiff has cited deposition testimony, affidavits, and video evidence allowing for an inference Pressley’s negligence was a cause in fact and proximate cause of the accident at issue. As described in more detail above, a jury could fi”nd Pressley should have seen Webster’s Cruze in the left lane, actually saw Webster use his turn signal, unreasonably decided to honk his horn instead of immediately braking, potentially signaled to Webster he had space to change lanes, and had Pressley chosen otherwise he could have stopped safely. SMART, undoubtedly, has also presented evidence of Webster’s negligence. A jury could find, in light of the evidence provided, Webster drove negligently by deciding to quickly switch lanes without first determining he had space to safely do so. However, evidence of Webster’s negligence does not warrant summary disposition in favor of SMART because there can be more than one proximate cause in a negligence case. O’Neal, 487 Mich at 497. Instead, it will be up to the jury to determine whether Webster and Pressley were negligent, and if so, to apportion fault. Estate of Goodwin, 325 Mich App at 139.”
The Court rejected SMART’s last argument regarding causation: that Johnson could not recover against it because in Seldon v Suburban Mobility Auth for Regional Transp, 297 Mich App 427 (2012), it held that ‘where the sudden stopping of the car is the only negligence proven, the passenger receiving injuries from the sudden stopping of the car cannot recover.’ The Court noted that there was evidence to create a question of fact as to whether it was Pressley’s sudden braking which caused Johnson’s injuries, or the bus rear-ending Webster’s vehicle.
“SMART’s argument in this regard suffers from two issues. First, to be successful, SMART would need us to determine there was no question of fact whether plaintiff’s injuries were factually and proximately caused by Pressley hitting the brakes or colliding with Webster’s Cruze. The record does not support such a conclusion. The video shows the two events happened within a matter of one or two seconds. To the extent it would even be possible to separate the events, there still existed a question of fact regarding whether one or both actually caused the injuries. Notably, Lieutenant Abbo was not an expert on causation of bodily injuries, and SMART did not present an affidavit from any expert purporting to be such. Further, plaintiff testified she flew forward at first, but then slid backward afterward. A reasonable jury could conclude plaintiff’s movement forward resulted in her injuries and was the consequence of Pressley’s sudden slamming of the brakes and then the collision caused the movement backward. See Robinson, 462 Mich at 456. Thus, once again, SMART has identified a question of fact, not a reason it should have been granted summary disposition. Seldon, 297 Mich App at 437.
The second issue with SMART’s argument is it ignores the pertinent language in our cases establishing the rule regarding usual incidents of travel. As identified above, the rule only applies when there is no evidence of negligence other than the sudden stopping. Id. For the reasons discussed above, there was evidence of negligence on behalf of Pressley while driving the SMART bus.”