HUNTER v SISCO: Court of Appeals Bars Auto-Accident Victim’s Right to Damages for Pain and Suffering

The Michigan Court of Appeals handed down a published decision recently in a case involving the Michigan Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA). The decision bars an auto-accident victim from asking a jury to award damages for pain and suffering when the crash was caused by a governmental employee’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle.

In Michigan, the GTLA provides a general blanket of immunity for governmental employees and agencies when they are performing a “governmental function.” Section 1405 of the GTLA, however, provides an exception for injuries – specifically “bodily injury” and “property damage” — caused by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle by a government employee.

In Hunter, the trial court held that “bodily injury” included emotional damages such as pain and suffering and that the plaintiff would at least have the opportunity to make his case to a jury in that regard. The trial court’s finding was not a radical departure from Michigan personal injury law as damages for pain and suffering are almost invariably part of such claims for personal injury.

Unfortunately, on appeal, the Court of Appeals overruled the trial court and interpreted “bodily injury” narrowly, holding that the phrase only includes “physical or corporeal injury to the body” and not pain and suffering.

The ruling obviously represents a significant blow to plaintiffs involved in crashes with governmental employees, especially plaintiffs suffering catastrophic bodily injuries, such as spinal cord injuries. These types of severe injuries often cause grave emotional distress and clinical conditions like depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

One of the problems the ruling poses is that separating an injured victim’s intense mental suffering from the mental significance the physical injuries pose him or her is virtually impossible.