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Michigan Court of Appeals Scales Back Governmental Immunity for Dangerous Bridges

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Governmental entities play an important role in our daily lives. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to go about one’s day without utilizing some type of governmental service. Occasionally, people are injured when a governmental agency fails to discharge its duties properly. This is precisely what happened to Robert Moser.

Mr. Moser was traveling on Interstate 75 in Detroit when a large block of concrete separated from an overpass and crashed through his windshield. As a result, he received broken ribs, head lacerations, and a collapsed lung. Mr. Moser sued the City of Detroit, Wayne County, and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), alleging that their negligent maintenance of the bridge caused his injuries. MDOT sought to have the case dismissed, asserting that Michigan law grants it immunity from liability unless there is a defect in "the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel." The trial court denied MDOT’s motion, concluding that a bridge necessarily includes the fascia and other elements as part of its superstructure, and that these elements constitute "the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel."

In a two-to-one decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals agreed. The majority stated:

The fact is, a road is not a two dimensional surface comprised of only length and width. Logically, then, the maintenance of the improved portion of the highway includes the maintenance of the sides and underside of the highway. If the sides and underside are allowed to deteriorate, the highway is just as subject to collapse or other dangers, as it would be if the surface were allowed to deteriorate (perhaps even more so).

The dissenting judge, in contrast, opined that "only the travel lanes of a highway" are subject to the exception to governmental immunity.

There is no question that we rely on governmental units to provide some of our most important services. If these services are not provided, or are provided negligently, the results can be catastrophic. Governmental agencies should be subject to some level of accountability for their careless acts or omissions.

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  1. Bret Hanna says:
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    Dave – this is an interesting post. I’m still an active member of the Michigan Bar but have not practiced there since 1994. I pay attention to Michigan legal developments but I missed this one.

    Your post caught my eye because when I did practice there (Grand Rapids), most of my work was defending county road commissions. During my short time doing it(3 years) there were always efforts (some ours) to limit their liability and many were successful. I thought it had progressed to the point that it was virtually impossible to recover from those charged with designing and maintaining roads – and it caused a practice area at my old firm to virtually dry up eventually. Be careful what you wish for, right?

    In any event, I’m glad to see that some wiggle room seems to be developing so that injured people have recourse if these agencies blow it.

    Bret