Court examines "gross negligence" in the context of road construction and warnings
While re-paving US-127 in Ingham County, MDOT employees were consulted by Rieth-Riley Construction employees about how to address a trench adjacent to the Holt Road exit. The project engineers for MDOT told the contractors that nothing should be done to barricade, warn or pave over the trench, and that if Rieth-Riley took action on its own, the expenses would not be covered under the contract. In May of 2005, Bruce Boone was operating his motorcyle on US-127 when he attempted to exit at Holt Road and found himself in the trench immediately adjacent to the fog line in an area where the shoulder, exit and paved lane were combined during construction. Boone was paralyzed in the resulting accident.
The Appellate Court concluded that it was a question of fact for jurors to decide whether the construction engineers at MDOT were guilty of gross negligence in addressing safety issues involving the trench [it was 85 foot long, 12 to 20 inches deep, 4-6 inches wide and partially filled with pea stone. The Court held that "a reasonable juror could conclude from the evidence that [the engineers] displayed a willful disregard for the substantial risk that the trench posed." They were warned, but they "chose to disregard the warnings because the suggested solutions were not part of the approved plan" and thus, their conduct was "not just passive in nature."
The appellate court also rejected the State's argument that Boone was the "one most immediate and direct cause" of the accident, pointing out that a jury may conclude that the engineers' failure to address the hazard represented by the trench was "the" cause of the injury.