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Court rejects claim loading handicap-access bus is not "operation of a motor vehicle"

Jeanette Collins' wheelchair fell while she swas being loaded on a Capital Area Transportation Authority bus.  She suffered multiple injuries and ultimately died.  The driver who was loading her on the bus claimed he did not know why the lift malfunctioned, dropping her.  Despite the fact that CATA had been warned previously that the subject lift was not operating properly and was not equipped with a safety belt, CATA defended Collins' family's wrongful death claim to the hilt. The trial court and Court of Appeals rejected CATA's defenses, including its argument that loading and unloading a bus doesn't constitute the "operation of a motor vehicle." 

As a holdover from common law England, where the King "owned"  the Courts, claimed "sovereign immunity" and would not allow himself to be sued in them, American jurisdictions still grant the government general immunity from negligence.  In Michigan, there are statutory exceptions to this immunity, involving the operation of motor vehicles and the maintenance of public buildings.  While the Engler Majority on the Michigan Supreme Court mounted a campaign to minimize these exceptions, it lacked the power to eliminate them entirely.  As a result, in many situations, a government must compensate a victim where its employees' negligence injures the victim.

Relying on a pair of Engler-majority decisions, CATA argued that loading Ms. Collins was not the "operation" of a motor vehicle, however, both courts rejected this strained interpretation of the law.  The Court of Appeals noted that even the Engler Majority did not extend immunity--and restrict "operation" of a bus--to exclude loading and unloading passengers.  CATA's additional arguments:  that Collins might have caused the fall in some manner; or, that her family's claim sounded in product liability for which governments are immune, were also summarily rejected.  The Court noted that there was ample evidence of negligence by CATA in failing to respond to prior complaints, and that a seatbelt would have prevented a fall--even if it were somehow initiated by an action by Collins.

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