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Court examining death of child chained to bed focuses on the causation requirement in governmental immunity/negligence cases

The Court of Appeals focused on the issue of proximate causation in the lawsuit by Calista Springer's grandmother against Child Protective Services (CPS) employees Patricia Skelding and Cynthia Bare.  Skelding and Bare were charged with investigating multiple complaints of abuse against Calista's parents two years before Calista died in a house fire.  They concluded there was inadequate evidence to support a prosecution and closed the investigation.  When Calista died in the fire,  while chained to her bed, her grandmother sued the CPS employees for negligence.

Governmental actors enjoy immunity from ordinary negligence claims unless the Legislature has voted to create an exception (because we adopted the same "common law" on sovereign immunity that English kings created to protect themselves).  In Michigan, with a few exceptions, government actors are immune from their mistakes unless they are guilty of "gross" negligence.  Gross negligence has been described as a wanton disregard for the likelihood that an injury will happen and requires proof of something more than "mere" negligence. 

The instant defendants conceded that they were potentially guilty of "gross negligence" but still sought dismissal of the civil action, arguing that under another section of the immunity statute, they were not "the" cause of Calista's death.  The Court of Appeals noted that a number of years ago the Michigan Supreme Court (with the so-called "Engler Majority" in control) interpreted the immunity statute to require that a governmental actor be "the one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause preceding an injury."

Needless to say, applying the above standard to this and most cases where a government actor fails in regulatory or protective duties, even an "utter fail[ure] in their duty to intervene" will not make governmental employees even partially responsible for their mistakes. This lack of accountability by reason of governmental employment is neither logical nor sound public policy.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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