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Court addresses liability of governmental agents who are serving in a dual role

Patrick Ryan was a special-needs young man who drowned in the Lamphere Public Schools pool during a Special Olympics training event.  When he drowned, there were two school employees and one volunteer lifeguard on duty, and they claimed that he was supervised for all but 30 seconds.  The School offered a physician's suggestion that Patrick could have drowned within 30 seconds if he had seized and was unconscious.  The family hired a water safety expert who replied that this was bunk:  for Patrick to drown and suffer permanent, unrecoverable brain damage, had to require several minutes of inattention by the supervising staff.

The family filed a wrongful death lawsuit but the trial court dismissed the claim.  The Court held that the Special Olympics event was a governmental function by the school, and that at most the family had established an argument over ordinary negligence, not the gross negligence that is necessary to make a governmental employee responsible for injuries that he or she has caused.  The family appealed both of these rulings.

On appeal the Court agreed that opening the school facilities for a community program such as Special Olympics remained a "governmental" and not a "proprietary" function.  Therefore, the school system could not be responsible for Patrick's death.  On the other hand, the Court noted that school system employees and a volunteer lifeguard/student were apparently functioning in a dual role as both school agents and as agents of Special Olympics.  It pointed out that the activity was planned outside the school curriculum and scheduled during the employee's non-instructional hours. 

On this basis, the Court of Appeals reversed and sent the case back to assess whether the agents could be held responsible for ordinary negligence in the "dual role" as agents of a non-governmental entity, Special Olympics.  The Court relied heavily on a prior Michigan Supreme Court decision involving a doctor with a private practice who was also employed by MSU's Hospital:  in that previous case, the Court had ruled emphatically that immunity does not extend to the private responsibility of a governmental employee acting in a "dual role."

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