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CMU Stadium not a public building?

  Frieda Williams was injured when she stepped in a crack at Perry Shorts stadium on her way to the restroom.  She was at the stadium as a band camp participant.  The trial judge's decision that CMU is immune from suit because the stadium was not a public building and was not held open to the public was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

When the King of England created courts to allow citizens to resolve disputes, he refused to allow litigants to sue him in the courts he created; this doctine was called sovereign immunity.  In a bizarre twist of history, when we threw off the English King at the time of the American Revolution, we adopted a common law system of justice that retained immunity for the government--just as the King of England had insisted on being immune from suit.

The process makes little sense from a risk-sharing or democratic perspective, and can only be justified by historical development:  if we all benefit from the actions of the state, but someone is hurt in the process, why should the victim bear the entire cost of injury incurred for the common good?  Nevertheless, we picked up the doctrine, lock, stock and barrel, but slowly chipped away at it for two centuries, through litigation and court decisions.  In the past two decades, however, "reformers" in Michigan have once again expanded the concept of governmental immunity to eliminate claims by persons injured by government actors. 

For example, just last week we explained how the 4-member majority of our Supreme Court decided that a death caused by a government driver's negligence is not actionable because the deceased and his family did not suffer "bodily injury".  The Court of Appeals further expanded governmental immunity this week in the Williams v. CMU case, by holding that the "public building exception"--requiring the government to maintain public buildings or be responsible for injuries--did not apply to CMU's stadium.  After quoting Black's Law Dictionary definition of "building":  "a relatively permanent, essentially boxlike construction having a roof and used for any of a wide variety of activities...a structure or edifice enclosing a space within its walls, and usually, but not necessarily covered with a roof", the Court held that the concrete stadium with its restrooms, concession rooms, offices, storage rooms and locker rooms did not meet the latter definition.  This decision seems an overly stringent application of the proper definition of a "building" under the circumstances. Incredibly, the Court went further, and held that since the injury occurred during band camp, when only partipants were allowed entrance to the stadium, the building was not "open to the public" at the time.  Since CMU charged the high school for use of the facility, and hundreds of members of the public were admitted, it appears that the stadium is never "open to the public", since CMU presumably charges admission for all events held at the stadium.  With this fine statement of callous public policy, CMU and other public venues can allow their stadiums to deteriorate to the point of collapse, and there will be no outcry until a catastrophic event maims or kills enough people to capture the public imagination.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
Toll Free: 1-800-678-1307
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