Court again rejects "prejudice" standard for claims against state government
In an odd hold-over from the English monarchy and common law, American states have traditionally held that citizens cannot sue the government for negligent actions. After all, "the King can do no wrong" has never really enjoyed the same respect here that it enjoyed in medieval Europe.
In most states, during the 40s, 50s and 60s, statutes were adopted limiting the government's "sovereign immunity." During the press for tort "reform" in the 80s and 90s, however, Republicans re-wrote or re-interpreted these laws to limit victims' rights in Michigan. One of the consequences of this judicial activism was the reversal of a decades-old holding that governments could not enforce "notice of injury/claim" requirements unless they demonstrated prejudice resulting from the lack of notice. The so-called "Engler Majority" ruled that even if the governmental entity claiming sovereign immunity was on the scene of the injury and fully investigated it the day of the incident, it could insist on the dismissal of a claim where there was a technical defect in the notice. The defect could be as minor as using the wrong name for the governmental department, identifying the adjacent lot as the location of injury, filing a copy of the claim with the wrong court or failing to include the name of a witness already known to the government.
The Court of Appeals upheld this "strict interpretation" standard in Hazley v. Department of Transportation this week when it dismissed an injury claim based on a highway defect. Because Hazley's lawyers failed to file a copy of the Notice in the Court of Claims in Lansing, Hazley's claim was permanently dismissed without consideration on the merits.