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Lawyers’ Corner: Governmental Immunity in Motley v Sadovskiy

When the state is one of the defendants in your Michigan third party auto accident claim it adds a whole new level to the case. It can cut off the liability of some actors and limit damages available from others. Lawyers need to be ready to face governmental immunity defenses head on.

The new unpublished case Motley v Sadovskiy provides a helpful summary of what damages are and are not available in governmental immunity cases. The plaintiffs in that case were rear-ended by a student intern named Sadovskiy driving a Michigan Department of Transportation vehicle.

Governmental Immunity of Individual Defendants

“Governmental immunity” is protection given to government employees, agents, and actors, for work done for the government. Under MCL 691.1407, a government actor can only be sued if he was grossly negligent in his duties and that negligence proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Since Sadovskiy’s driving didn’t amount to gross negligence, the plaintiffs could not sue him directly for their injuries.

Governmental Immunity in Auto Accidents

The law that grants governmental immunity explicitly excludes auto accidents:

“Governmental agencies shall be liable for bodily injury and property damage resulting from the negligent operation by any officer, agent, or employee of the governmental agency, of a motor vehicle of which the governmental agency is owner…” MCL 691.1405.

What is included in that exception has been up for debate in the Michigan courts, which the Motley court explains. In 2013, in Hunter v Sisco, the Court of Appeals ruled that the government was absolutely protected against having to pay non-economic damages like pain and suffering. The next year, in Hannay v Department of Transportation, the same court said that any damages had to be directly related to the bodily injury itself.

Both cases went to the Supreme Court in Hannay v Department of Transportation. The Court clarified that a government agency is liable for damages flowing from a physical bodily injury. This is a category of harm, not a limit on the type of damages. It ruled:

It is a longstanding principle in this state’s jurisprudence that tort damages generally include damages for all the legal and  natural consequences of the injury (i.e., the damages that naturally flow from the injury), which may include damages for loss of the ability to work and earn money, as well as pain and suffering and mental and emotional distress damages.

While the plaintiffs had no claim against the government driver, the court ruled they could seek both economic and noneconomic damages from the state.

When bringing a lawsuit against government defendants, your claims against the individual drivers and the agencies they work for may be different. Be prepared to defend your claims for economic and non-economic damages against governmental immunity defenses.

David Christensen is a veteran auto accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He has presented on issues of auto negligence at the state and national level. If your clients are facing a difficult auto-accident claim, contact Christensen Law today.