Michigan Supreme Court elevates form over justice: lack of notarization on injury notice means no recovery for seriously-hurt victims
This week the Michigan Supreme Court issued another decision confirming its callous disregard for what most people would consider "justice." It handed down a decision granting summary disposition to governmental defendants who had caused "life-altering" injuries to innocent victims, because their attorneys had not affixed a notarization to their otherwise complete and appropriate notices of injury.
Historically, English kings created the court system and "owned" it; they did not allow litigants to use "their" courts to sue them. The doctrine was called "sovereign immunity" and vestiges of it survived the establishment of democracy in this country. A doctrine that refuses to "share" the cost of injuries--and government-- more broadly, and instead leaves the consequences of government-caused injury solely on the shoulders of the victim seems uniquely undemocratic and unfair, and by the 1980s, the doctrine was being whittled down to more appropriate dimensions.
Statutes and court rulings allowed suit against negligent government actors, although they often required specific notices within short time periods, frequently required a showing of "aggravated" negligence, and occasionally limited the recoverable damages. These limitations were interpreted with common sense an eye toward a just outcome, however, and for example, a government actor alleging a procedural defect was required to show that the defect caused the defendant to be prejudiced.
When extremely conservative Republicans captured Michigan's Supreme Court, however, the Court embarked on a campaign to reverse several decades of precedent and to strengthen the doctrine of "sovereign" or "governmental immunity." Suddenly, road authorities' duty to maintain reasonably safe roads did not include a duty to replace damaged or missing signs; negligent government actors were granted immunity if they were not the "sole" or "primary" cause of an injury; time deadlines were strictly construed and a governmental injury-causing defendant was no longer obligated to show prejudice in order to secure dismissal for a procedural defect. Family members of a seriously-injured victim were denied the right to compensation to a husband or parent. The list could go on for 1,000 words.
This week, the Supreme Court pushed "sovereign immunity" one step further. It reversed the Court of Appeals and summarily disposed of the injury claims of two women who were innocent victims of governmental actors' negligence. Michelle Fairley and Lori Stone were both hurt in car accidents caused by governmental employees. In both cases, their attorneys filed detailed, timely notices exhaustively explaining the facts of the collisions and the clients' injuries. They did not, however, affirm on the notices that the content had been "verified" by an "officer authorized to administer oaths."
The Court held that this failure to "strictly comply" with the notice statute must result in the permanent dismissal of both women's claims, regardless of whether the governmental defendant objected to the notice or suffered any prejudice. The Court allowed no avenue for correction and no method for cure: it elevated, once more, a sphincter-tightening respect for its strict reading of statute over the legitimate claims of innocent women who suffered "life-altering" injuries. It comes as no surprise that one of these Justices recently chastised a Grand Traverse County Circuit Judge for allowing his "subjective sense of justice" to cause him to repudiate an unjust outcome.
We've fallen to a pitiful state of affairs in our overly-politicized, party-dominated, dark money-subsidized court system.