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Michigan Supreme Court States New Process to Determine “proximate cause” under GTLA - Is it Clearer?

Posted on Monday, May 7, 2018

The case of Ray v SwagerNo: 322766, came to the Michigan Court of Appeals (MCOA) on remand from the Michigan Supreme Court. In the first appeal to the MCOA, Eric Swager appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion for summary disposition. The MCOA reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded for entry of summary disposition in Swager’s favor based on the conclusion that reasonable minds could not conclude that Swager was “the proximate cause” of plaintiff Ray’s injuries.

Ray appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, and the Michigan Supreme Court announced a new framework to clarify the process for determining “the proximate cause” in the context of the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA).

Facts:

On September 2, 2011, 13-year-old Ray, running with the Chelsea High School cross-country team, was struck by an automobile driven by Scott Platt. Swager—the team’s coach—was running with the team. As the team approached the intersection in question, they encountered a “red hand” on the pedestrian signal, indicating that pedestrians should not cross the road. Although the eyewitness accounts vary, there is evidence that Swager said something to effect of “let’s go,” and the team crossed the street. Ray, who was in the back of the group, ran into the road and was hit by Platt.

Procedural Background:

Following the accident, Ray filed suit against Swager and Scott Platt. Swager answered with a motion for summary disposition based on governmental immunity, arguing that, as a government employee, he was immune because he wasn’t “grossly negligent” and his conduct wasn’t the “proximate cause” of Ray’s injuries.

When the MCOA reversed the decision of the trial court and remanded for entry of summary disposition in favor of Swager, it concluded that his remark ‘let’s go’ could not be considered the proximate cause of Ray’s injuries since Ray ran in front of Platt’s car and Platt hit him.

Supreme Court framework for analyzing ‘proximate cause’ under GTLA:

The analysis under this framework begins by:

  1. Determining whether the defendant's gross negligence was a cause in fact of the plaintiff's injuries,
  2. If his gross negligence is a factual cause, then consider whether the defendant was a proximate or legal cause by addressing foresee-ability, and
  3. Whether the actor may be held legally responsible for his or her conduct.

In addition to considering the governmental actor’s conduct, it must also be decided whether there are other proximate causes of the injury.

Determining if there are other proximate causes of the injury requires consideration of whether any other human person was negligent. The court stated: “only a human actor’s breach of a duty can be a proximate cause.” While natural forces may bear on the question of foreseeability and intervening causes when analyzing proximate cause, the court indicated that they can never be considered the proximate cause of a plaintiff’s injuries for the purposes of the GTLA.

Once all the proximate causes of the injuries have been determined, then, taking all those causes into account, the question is: was the government actor’s gross negligence the “proximate cause” of the injury. In an effort to clarify this position the court stated: “The relevant inquiry is not whether the defendant’s conduct was the immediate factual cause of injury, but whether, weighing the legal responsibilities of the actors involved, the government actor could be considered “the proximate cause.”

Using the analysis recommended by the Michigan Supreme Court, the MCOA wrote that “Because issues of material fact remain that preclude summary disposition, we affirm the trial court’s denial of Swager’s motion for summary disposition and remand for further proceedings.”

Concurring Opinion:

Hon. Mark T. Boonstra, while agreeing with the outcome of the majority, argued that the Supreme Court’s new method of analysis is so confusing that “it may be that trial courts will throw up their hands and simply allow everything to proceed to trial, even when circumstances may not warrant.” Because of this, Judge Boonstra urged the Legislature to state its intent, concluding that “…it is the Legislature that can avoid further and prolonged judicial wrangling over legislative intent, and further confusion in the trial courts, by restating its intent clearly and explicitly and perhaps, as the [MSCt] Dissent suggests, without reference to the much-maligned term, “proximate cause”.

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