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Sheriff volunteer runs over Winterfest visitor with airboat, granted immunity: no injury recovery

Conrad Niederhouse, a Crawford County Sheriff's Deputy, suffered a permanently disabling work injury when he was run over by an airboat while visiting Winterfest in 2010.  A Roscommon County Deputy was operating the airboat--apparently for the first time--giving his kids and some neighbor kids a ride, when he miscalculated his turning radius and struck Niederhouse and a stationary snowmobile.  The airboat was owned by the Sheriff's Department, which had asked for Deputy volunteers to take visitors for a ride, as a public relations stunt, during Winterfest.

Deputy Palmerton had declined to participate.  Nevertheless, when his family plans changed, he offered to take over from the deputy who had operated the airboat and given his "last ride," in order to give Palmerton's kids a ride.  After his knee was ruined in the incident, Niederhouse's brought a civil action against the Roscommon Sheriff's Department and Palmerston, arguing that they (and their insurer) should be responsible for compensating Niederhouse.

The trial judge ruled that the public relations stunt was a governmental activity, that Palmerston was acting pursuant to his employment with the government, and that Palmerston was not grossly negligent.  On this basis, the trial judge granted all defendants summary judgment and dismissed Niederhouse's claim. 

The injured deputy had the misfortune of drawing staunch Republicans  on his Court of Appeals panel.  In a typical Henry Saad decision, the appellate court upheld the lower court's decision denying any recovery to the injured man.  It allowed to stand the decision that the airboat was not a "motor vehicle," and that Palmerston was engaged in his employment (even though he was not acting within "the temporal and spatial boundaries established" for his employment).  It ruled that even though Palmerston may have been motivated by the idea of giving airboat rides to his own family and two other kids and it was not an employment duty, driving the airboat was in furtherance of his employer's purpose and therefore subject to immunity.

What a goofy world where a man standing and minding his own business can be run over and seriously injured by a volunteer Deputy frolicing in an unfamiliar machine, and then have no legal recourse--despite a career-ending injury.  This is Michigan's insurance climate under Republican jurisdiction.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
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Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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