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Family of prisoner killed doing volunteer work cannot sue negligent Drain Commission employees

James Dudley died after being struck by a dead tree that fell while he and other County jail prisoners were performing volunteer work cleaning St. Clair County drains of debris.  The trial judge granted all of the defendants summary disposition, holding that the multiple claims of negligence raised by the family of the dead man could not rise to the level of gross negligence necessary to obviate the governmental employees' statutory immunity.

The Court of Appeals majority upheld this outcome, with one judge dissenting.  The dissenting judge noted that there was "extensive and expert evidence in the record" that the supervising employee of the jail crew was negligent at a level that could constitute "gross negligence."  The dissenting judge noted that MIOSHA issued multiple citations and the jail crew supervisor was suspended by the County after the death, due to his failure to offer hardhats or otherwise follow standard safety precautions.  While the majority held that the dead tree that killed the family's decedent was a "random tree not within the work area" [despite the fact that it was close enough to hit and kill the decedent], the dissenting judge noted that the supervisor had recklessly failed to account for a host of what the supervisor called dead "widow makers" near the work-site.


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