MDOT denied automatic immunity for failing to properly close exit lane
Tracy Snead was one of four drivers who, within minutes, drove into a seven-foot deep pit dug by MDOT contractors on an exit lane of I-94. When she filed suit for her injuries, however, MDOT argued that under the terms of an "Engler Majority" Republican Justice decision several years ago, it was immune from any responsibility. Many government actors enjoy "sovereign immunity" for their mistakes; a bizarre holdover from the English common law days when the King "owned" the courts and refused to hold his minions responsible for errors. That immunity was limited by statute in Michigan, with respect to roadways, when the Legislature passed a law requiring highway authorities to maintain the roads within their jurisdiction in a manner "reasonably safe for public travel." About a decade ago, Justices appointed by the Republican Party ruled that highway authorities were not responsible for traffic control signs or signals; their duty applied only to the "roadbed." MDOT relied on this decision to argue that regardless of its negligence in failing to close the freeway exit under construction, it was immune from responsibility.The trial judge rejected MDOT's argument and ruled that by failing to adequately close the exit, it was responsible for Snead's injuries and not entitled to immunity. MDOT appealed to the Court of Appeals. This week the panel that heard the case ruled that regardless of its immunity for negligent signage or traffic control, MDOT's seven-foot pit in the highway constituted an unsafe "roadbed." It reversed the lower court, however, and sent the case back for the jury to determine whether the road had been "closed" to public travel. If the jury finds that the inadequate signage and barricading did not close the road to public travel, MDOT will be responsible for Snead's injuries.