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Motorcyclist's claim against police agency will go forward

Chris Lambert was riding his Harley on US 23, traveling the 70 mph speed limit on his way to babysit his grand-daughter in Lansing, when he was squeezed off the road by a semi-tractor trailer in the lane ahead of him. The truck applied its brakes hard, and then decelerated in to the left lane immediately after Lambert moved to the left lane to avoid striking the trailer.  It turned out that the truck was reacting to a Green Oak Township Police officer who was traveling to the office at the end of his shift with his lights and siren operational.  The officer claimed he forgot to turn off the lights after a prior incident.  His lights had "accidentally" caused another motorist to pull over on the freeway, and in this 70 mph zone, the officer simply stopped in the right lane of the freeway, adjacent to the stopped motorist, to tell her that he was not detaining her.  In the process, the office briefly obstructed the right lane of the high speed  traffic, causing the problems that sent Lambert in to the median at high speed.  When he turned around to investigate the incident, the officer, one Michael Jain, also "accidentally" forgot to record the names of the witnesses or their vehicle identification information.  As a result, the biker was left with no eyewitnesses to corroborate his account of what happened.

Lambert filed suit against Jain and the Township to recover for the injuries he suffered.  The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that there was enough evidence for the injured man to go forward on a negligence claim against the owner of the vehicle--the Township.  Governmental entities have no immunity for negligent operation of motor vehicles. The Court also rejected the Township's claim that under a prior holding by the activist "Engler Majority" of the Michigan Supreme Court, the injured man could sue for the Township's negligence only if there was direct contact between Jain's vehicle and Lambert's.

The higher courtdid overturn the lower court and dismiss Lambert's claim against Jain, however, as it deemed Lambert had proffered no evidence of "gross negligence" by Jain.  To sue a government employee for injuries, the victim must prove that the defendant individual was guilty of "conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results."

It seems to us that when you look at all of the circumstances involved here, and the very credible assertion that Jain's activities reflected a rush to "punch out" after his shift concluded, there is ample basis for a jury to conclude that his conduct--particularly in stopping in the traveled lane of a high speed freeway rather than staying on the wide shoulder (where he stopped initially) was recklessly putting his own work departure ahead of safety.  Nevertheless, the case will be cited as another example of the very high standard a victim must prove in order to hold a public actor responsible for stupid behavior.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
Toll Free: 1-800-678-1307
Fax: 231-929-7262