Government Liability in Michigan
Can You Sue the Government for Injuries?
Many people wonder if you can sue the government for injuries. People usually wonder this following an injury either at a government building or on property maintained by the government, for example. However, the answer isn’t entirely straightforward.
You cannot sue the government for injuries if the negligent acts that led to your injuries occurred while a government employee was performing a “governmental function.” Michigan law states that a “governmental function” generally means that if the employee is doing his or her job when the negligence occurs, you cannot sue the government. However, a few exceptions to government liability in Michigan exist.
Exceptions to the General Rule of Government Liability in Michigan
The Michigan law that grants the government immunity also provides multiple exceptions to the general rule, and include the exceptions on the following list and further summarized below.
- Maintenance of public highways;
- Maintenance of public sidewalks;
- Negligent operation of a government-owned vehicle;
- Public building defects;
- The “proprietary function” exception;
- Medical malpractice;
- And the “sewage disposal event” exception.
Each of these exceptions has been repeatedly interpreted and re-interpreted by the courts in Michigan and as a result, each of these exceptions contains many requirements and exceptions of their own. Give the vast scope of activities that our government engages in on a daily basis, and the number of employees that the government has, it is inevitable that some of those actions will be negligent. Determining whether the government can be held responsible by applying one of the exceptions to the general rule of immunity takes legal research and close attention to the facts of each case. In a condensed form, the exceptions are described below.
Maintenance of Public Highways Exception
This exception applies to every “highway, road, or street that is open for public travel.” Moreover, it applies to every governmental unit, whether local or state, which has responsibility for a publicly-traveled road. The exception requires that the government maintain the roadway “in reasonable repair so that it is reasonably safe and convenient for public travel.” Of course, what “reasonable repair” or “reasonably safe and convenient for public travel” can mean many things. Each situation must be examined for its own specific facts.
Another limitation to this exception is the fact that the duty to keep the road in reasonable shape extends only to the “improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel.” In other words, the duty to keep the road in good shape only applies between the white fog lines on either side of the road. The curb, shoulder, ditch, or any other portion of the road which is not designed for vehicular travel is not included and therefore the government is not responsible for injuries that are caused by these parts of a roadway.
Finally, if you believe that you have a claim based on a poorly-maintained roadway, you should be aware many strict notice requirements apply to these types of cases. You should not hesitate in speaking with a Michigan personal injury attorney as it could limit or even completely prevent you from pursuing a claim if the notice requirements are not met.
Maintenance of Public Sidewalks
In 2012, our Legislature passed a law that made municipal governments responsible for the maintenance of sidewalks running next to a city, county, or state road. Neither the state nor the county government has any responsibility to maintain sidewalks that run adjacent to a road it is otherwise responsible for. Only the municipal government (the city or township, for example) owes the public a duty to maintain sidewalks.
This obligation to maintain the sidewalks is very limited. The following restrictions apply to any claim that a poorly-maintained sidewalk caused injury to someone using that sidewalk:
- The government is not responsible for any failure to maintain a sidewalk unless the injured person proves that the government knew for at least 30 days before the injury that the sidewalk was defective or proves that the government should have known of the defect;
- In any claim for injury, the government is presumed to have acted appropriately and the injured party must prove that the defect was either of the following:
- A “vertical discontinuity” greater than 2 inches (in other words, the sidewalk is raised by 2 inches or more than surrounding areas), or
- Another dangerous condition which is not a vertical discontinuity
Even if an injured person can prove these matters, the municipality can also claim that the defect was open and obvious to a casual observer and escape responsibility for any defect. In reality, it is extremely difficult to hold the government responsible for this type of negligence.
Government Motor Vehicle Exception
If someone is negligently operating a government-owned motor vehicle and you sustain an injury as a result, you may be able to recover damages. But this rule is separate and apart from the normal rules which govern automobile negligence in Michigan. For instance, while Michigan law generally allows you to recover for injuries suffered during the operation, use, or maintenance of a motor vehicle, in the context of a government-owned vehicle you may only sue based on the operation of the vehicle.
In addition, any injuries which arise out of the “operation” of a government-owned vehicle are subject to the threshold requirements of the No-Fault Act, meaning that an injured person must demonstrate serious impairment of a bodily function, permanent serious disfigurement, or death in order to bring even a limited claim.
An important thing to note about the exception of government-owned vehicles in regard to immunity is that the governmental immunity statute provides no definition of “motor vehicle.” And our Supreme Court has held a simple adoption of the definition from the Michigan Vehicle Code is incorrect. See Stanton v Battle Creek, 466 Mich 611, 616 (2002). Rather, the high Court has held that a motor vehicle, for purposes of governmental immunity, is “an automobile, truck, bus, or similar motor-driven conveyance.” Id. at 618.
In 2020, the Court of Appeals ventured into the territory of government-owned snowmobiles. West v Dept of Nat. Res, 333 Mich App 186 (2020). West addressed whether a snowmobile was a “motor vehicle” for purposes of MCL 691.1405. The West Court answered in the affirmative, meaning that victims of government-owned and negligently operated snowmobiles can purse tort claims against the government. Earlier this year, the Michigan Supreme Court denied leave to appeal. West v Dept of Nat. Res, No. 161948, 2022 WL 266072, at *1 (January 28, 2022), thereby leaving the Court of Appeals’ published decision in place.