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"Operation of a motor vehicle"

      When America adopted the English common law, it also adopted the concept of "sovereign immunity".  This concept can be functionally described, historically, as the King's willingness to provide a court in which disputes could be heard, but his unwillingness to provide a venue for anyone to air a dispute against him.  How odd, that revolutionaries founding a democracy should adopt this view of the courts; but they did.  Sovereign immunity [now called governmental immunity] has remained a concept attracting strange bedfellows.  The people most likely to champion it today tend to be politically allied with "starve-the-beasters" hoping to minimize government and government services, and arch conservatives who resent special privileges being accorded to government and government agents.

        With that two cents of historical perspective, Michigan has adopted a handful of statutory exceptions to governmental immunity.  They involve governmental vehicles on the highway, public buildings, government employees guilty of "gross negligence" and a handful of other specific factual situations.  The arch-Conservative and insurance-industry-captive majority of the Michigan Supreme Court has done its best to whittle away at these exceptions, and another example of its impact was published in November of 2007.

        The victim in Martin v. Rapid Inter-Urban Transit fell down the bus exit stairs as she was leaving a City bus, suffering serious injury.  The driver acknowledged in his Incident Report that the steps were slippery, but claimed that the fall was not preventable because his bus was not equipped with either heated steps or an ice scraper.  The victim sued, claiming that she was injured as a result of the negligent "operation" of a motor vehicle.  The Court of Appeals dismissed her case because the Supreme Court has held, in Chandler v. Muskegon County, that statutory "operation of a motor vehicle" encompasses only activities that are directly associated with the driving of the vehicle....not its intended function. Thus, Ms. Martin can sue if the driver runs her over, but not if he pushes her under an approaching vehicle (or allows her to slide off the bus steps and under the wheels). 

        This absurdly result-oriented interpretation of statutory language is a common feature of the opinions written by Governor Engler's appointees to the Michigan Supreme Court:  they have held that governmental entities are not responsible for design flaws in public buildings; only maintenance problems.  There are dozens of other holdings that make little sense, either logically or from a public policy standpoint:  for example, Michigan cases now hold that an innocent victim injured by an out of control police vehicle can recover if the vehicle strikes him, but not if it forces another vehicle to strike him.  A fireman racing to a fire in a Township truck is responsible for negligence (say for running a red light at high speed); but if he is responding in his own truck, he is not.  A public buiding must be maintained in a safe condition, but the covered entrance need not.  There are literally dozens of other examples.

        In Martin, the Trial Court noted that there was no reason "on God's green earth" for the existence of this vehicle, other than to transport passengers, and denied the City's request to dismiss the case.   Logically, he felt that to "operate" a bus means to allow passengers to board safely.  The Court of Appeals judges acknowledged that keeping ice off the steps was "integral" to this purpose. Nevertheless, they reversed the trial court, holding that the "operation" of a bus does not include the essential functions of passenger boarding or transportation:  under Michigan law it includes only the functions associated with driving.  If Ms. Martin had alleged that the driver swerved slightly as he approached the curb, she would have a cause of action:  if he and the City completely fail to keep the walkway and steps clear, injured victims have no recourse.  What a sad state of affairs.  To paraphrase the famed jurist:  "The life of the law is not logic; it is influence."

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