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Court rejects MDOT claim of summary immunity when trailer releases injuring motorist

Rozann Denise Marshall sued MDOT after she was badly hurt in a car accident. Marshall was hurt when a so-called "arrow trailer" released from an MDOT truck and struck her car. MDOT sought summary disposition, arguing that the trailer was not a "motor vehicle" and that its driver was not negligent in the operation of the vehicle.  Michigan governmental entities enjoy complete immunity for negligence unless a statutory exception applies; Marshall's attorneys argued that the motor vehicle exception should apply because the trailer was part of a motor vehicle prior to its unexpected release.

MDOT pointed to several recent decisions by the Republican majority of the Michigan Supreme Court which have narrowed the motor vehicle exception to immunity which had been adopted by the Legislature several decades earlier.  Under these recent decisions, the Republican majority ruled that a defective bus door closing on a patron was not properly considered the "operation of a motor vehicle" and that the operation of a fork lift also was not "operation of a motor vehicle."  Based on these decisions and relying on a politically-supportive court majority, MDOT argued that operating a trailer on a dump truck also was not "operating a motor vehicle."  MDOT also argued that if the trailer was operating under the exception, MDOT regained immunity when the trailer detached and was no longer a "motor vehicle."

The Court of Appeals rejected these arguments.  The panel pointed to numerous precedents holding that a trailer is part of a motor vehicle when it is operated on the road, and its unintended detachment did not change its essential character.  The Court also rejected MDOT's argument that it should be granted summary disposition because Marshall had not proved that MDOT's driver was negligent in the detachment of the trailer.  The Court noted that discovery was not complete when MDOT sought summary dismissal and that the plaintiff should be allowed the opportunity to investigate and elicit evidence relating to the cause of the detachment before summary disposition is granted.

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