Mom can't sue grossly negligent DHS employees for death of her daughter
The Estate of Gracie Simmons sued two Department of Human Services employees, arguing that young Gracie would not have been beaten to death by her father's live-in companion if the social workers had performed their jobs. Holly Preston, the toddler's mom, had reported to protective services workers when Gracie came home from a parental visit with her father showing bruising on her body. Within months, an ER doctor also reported to social workers after Gracie was taken to the ER with burns on her feet from boiling water.
The social workers did not perform an investigation and seven months later, the perpetrator, Sonya Moussaed, beat Gracie to death. Gracie's family argued that the social workers were guilty of gross negligence and therefore could not avail themselves of governmental immunity. The famly argued that because they had not complied with basic regulations on child protection, they had displayed the necessary "wilfull and wanton disregard" for Gracie's safety and well-being. The Defendants' attorneys did not contest allegations of gross negligence, but argued that under a ruling of the Republican majority of the Supreme Court, they were immune from liability because they were not "the" proximate cause of Gracie's death.
Prior to the Republican majority gaining control of Michigan's Supreme Court, the pertinent immunity statute had been interpreted in accordance with Michigan's other liability rules and for decades, the courts allowed claims against government actors to go to trial if the actors were "a" proximate cause of injury. The more insurance-oriented Republican majority, however, in a series of rulings restricting the rights of personal injury claimants, held that a claimant against the government must prove that the government actor was "the one most immediate, efficient and direct cause" of a victim's injuries or death.
On this basis, the appellate court in Gracie's case upheld the lower court's decision that the social workers were immune from Gracie's family's Wrongful Death claim. It held that no facts could justify a holding that the social workers, rather than Moussaed, were the "most immediate" cause of Gracie's death. While that is the likely outcome of a trial, given the statutory interpretation imposed by the Republican Justices, one wonders if there couldn't be facts that could result in a different conclusion.
One wonders if a jury, after hearing the facts, might ultimately conclude that Moussaed was a sick animal who posed a known, imminent threat to Gracie's life. Under the right set of facts, we can imagine that a jury might conclude that grossly irresponsible social workers who could have prevented the animal's access to Gracie were more responsible for her death than was the animal, itself. In a state where civil claims are deemed to be an unwarranted burden on commerce, however, that kind of search for justice takes a "second chair" to expediency.