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BlogsPublications | November 18, 2016
3 minute read

COA determines that a government agency can be liable for injury allegedly caused by failure to maintain a road

The Government Tort Liability Act’s (“GTLA”) immunity provision does not shield a government agency from suit for economic damages when a person sustains bodily injury due to the agency’s failure to properly maintain a highway, the Michigan Court of Appeals held in Estate of Matthey Michael Denney v Kent County Road Commission, No. 328135

In this wrongful death action, the plaintiff, as representative of the decedent’s estate, filed an action against the Kent County Road Commission (“the Commission”) after the decedent struck two potholes while riding his motorcycle and suffered fatal injuries.  The government moved for partial summary disposition, asserting it was immune from suit for economic damages such as loss earnings under the GTLA, and the trial court agreed.  The plaintiff countered, arguing that the government could be held liable for the decedent’s loss earnings under the GTLA’s “highway exception,” which permits a plaintiff to recover damages suffered due to the government’s failure to keep a highway reasonably safe and fit for travel.  However, the trial court disagreed and granted partial summary disposition in favor of the government.

On appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the trial court’s application of the GTLA.  Looking to the plain language of the wrongful death act, the appellate court first concluded that the act allows plaintiffs to recover “any type of damages, economic and noneconomic,” and because economic damages include damages incurred due to the inability to work, plaintiffs may recover damages for lost earnings under the wrongful death act. 

Turning to the issue of whether the Commission was immune from a suit of economic damages notwithstanding the wrongful death act’s allowance of them, the Court of Appeals agreed with the government that the GTLA was a statutory limitation to the wrongful death action, and that the Commission – as a governmental agency – maintained immune from tort liability unless an exception under the GTLA applied.   However, unlike the trial court, the Court of Appeals decided that the GTLA’s highway exception is applicable in circumstances where: 1) the injured party suffers bodily injury because of the government’s failure to maintain the highway, and 2) the tort liability is confined within the limitations of the statute that the action is brought under.  Having already determined that the wrongful death act allows for recovery of lost earnings, the Court further concluded that the decedent clearly suffered bodily injury.   

The Commission asserted that the highway exception was inapplicable because the decedent’s representative was seeking damages for lost financial support rather than lost earnings.  It asserted that the wrongful death act only allows for claims that the decedent could have brought on his own behalf had he lived, and because a claim of lost financial support belongs to the decedent’s beneficiaries and not himself, the Commission was immune from suit.  The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, finding that because the decedent suffered injury, he would have been able to bring a claim for lost earnings had he lived.  Because his claim survived his death and was brought by his personal representative under the wrongful death act, the Commission’s claim was without merit.  Thus, the Court reversed and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.