Missing Pane of Glass from Public Bus Shelter Not a Defective or Dangerous Condition Sufficient to State Cause of Action Against Public Bus Authority Under “Public Building” Exception to Governmental Immunity

The Summary Disposition Standard Debate

This case highlights a current conflict among the Court of Appeals.  There is a current “debate” among Court of Appeals panels in recent opinions about the sufficiency of pleading a cause of action against the government when assessing the government’s motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), which provides for “[e]ntry of judgment, dismissal of the action, or other relief because of…immunity granted by law”.  There is also debate about the extent to which sufficiently pled allegations, without more, can survive a summary disposition motion brought under this court rule pursuant to the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), and the respective exceptions to governmental immunity being pled by the plaintiff in a given case.

Is it sufficient for a plaintiff to merely plead allegations that, if true, but not proved, would be sufficient to survive a motion for summary disposition filed by the government under MCR 2.116(C)(7)?  Should the trial court decide the factual question before allowing the case to go forward against the government?  Or, should the question be left to a jury (which of course means the case goes to trial)?

Hubbert v. SMART

This is a rather unremarkable case in terms of the outcome, but the majority and dissenting opinions are worth noting for several points.  The plaintiff was injured when he fell through a missing pane of glass on a public bus stop.  Plaintiff filed suit against the public bus authority seeking damages and claiming negligence.

The plaintiff never pled allegations in avoidance of immunity, i.e., never pled that the facts established his case fit with one of the five statutory exceptions to governmental immunity.  In fact, the plaintiff never acknowledged that governmental immunity applied.

The governmental defendant (the public bus authority), included “immunity” in its affirmative defense, and simply conceded the “public building” exception to governmental immunity was the exception under which the plaintiff had to bring her cause of action.  Public bus stops are considered “public buildings” within the meaning of MCL 691.1406 of the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) (the “public building” exception).  Ali v. City of Detroit, 218 Mich. App. 581, 585 (1996).

The bus authority filed a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7), (C)(8) and (C)(10), contending that the public building exception did not apply because the missing pane of glass did not constitute a “dangerous or defective condition” within the meaning of the public building exception.

Plaintiff argued there was a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether the missing pane of glass was a “dangerous or defective condition”, and that this was a sufficient question to allow the action to proceed to a jury for consideration.  The trial court agreed and denied the bus authority’s motion.  Pursuant to Michigan Court Rules (MCR) 7.203(A)(1) and MCR 7.202(6)(a)(v), denial of a governmental entity’s motion for summary disposition on immunity grounds under MCR 2.116(C)(7) is appealable by right.

The Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 opinion reversed ordering judgment for the bus authority.  The Court reasoned that, as a matter of law, the missing pane of glass was not a “dangerous or defective” condition within the meaning of the public building exception.

Applying the MCR 2.116(C)(7) Standard –  “Immunity Granted by Law”

Even though the bus authority sought summary disposition under the standards applicable to such motions under all three court rules MCR 2.116(C)(7) (“immunity granted by law”); (C)(8) (“failure to plead or state a claim”); and (C)(10) (“no genuine issue of material fact”), the Court of Appeals majority properly oriented the motion as one falling under (C)(7).

Thus, the Court reasoned, that summary disposition is appropriate under MCR 2.116(C)(7) when a claim is barred by “immunity granted by law”.  Slip Op. at 2-3.  (emphasis added), citing Seldon v. SMART, 297 Mich. App. 427, 432 (2012).  The Court pointed out that the trial court is to resolve the governmental immunity issue at the summary disposition stage as “an issue of law”, “[i]f there are no material facts in dispute or if reasonable minds could not differ regarding the legal effect of the facts.”  Id., citing Norris v. Lincoln Park Police Officers, 292 Mich. App. 574, 578 (2011).

This is not an insignificant detail.  The jurisdictional view of governmental immunity adhered to in Michigan requires that for a circuit court to even have subject-matter jurisdiction over a cause of action filed against the government, the case itself (the underlying facts of the case) must establish that the claim against the government can go forward under one of the legislative exceptions to immunity in the GTLA.  Greenfield Construction Co. v. State Highway Dep’t., 402 Mich. 172, 194 (1978) (stating that “it is well settled that the circuit court is without jurisdiction to entertain an action against the State of Michigan unless that jurisdiction shall have been acquired  by legislative consent).  See also Ross v. Consumers Power Co., 420 Mich. 567 (1984) and Manion v. State Highway Comm’r., 303 Mich. 1 (1942).  As the Supreme Court has recognized: “the state created the courts and so is not subject to them” or their jurisdiction absent explicit legislative consent.  County Road Ass’n of Michigan v. Governor, 287 Mich. App. 95, 118 (2010), citing Pohutski v. City of Allen Park, 465 Mich. 675, 681 (2002).

Such consent comes only in the form of the narrowly applied exceptions to that immunity in the GTLA.  In re Bradley’s Estate, 494 Mich. 367, 389 (2013) (to state a claim for “tort liability” against the government, the only avenue to impose such liability and access any available remedy is through and under the provisions of the GTLA).  Only when the claimant pleads that the facts fall within an exception and proves the facts exist is there evidence of a waiver of the inherent and preexisting immunity granted by law.  Mack v. City of Detroit, 467 Mich. 186, 200-202 (2002) (a plaintiff pleads in avoidance of immunity by stating a claim that fits within a statutory exception).  And, later, the Court in a case I successfully briefed and argued, made clear that, at least with respect to actions against governmental entities, the burden of proof to both plead and prove the case falls within an exception is on the claimant at the outset.  Odom v. Wayne County, 482 Mich. 459 (2008).

In this case, the Court of Appeals properly notes that the governmental immunity issue must be addressed at the summary disposition stage and as a “question of law”.  This properly orients the the preexisting and inherent characteristic of the government’s immunity.  As the Supreme Court has noted on more than one occasion, the government is immune from suit, not just liability, and if it has to expend its resources defending lawsuits all the way to the stage of the case reaching a jury, or a trial judge’s verdict, then immunity will be meaningless.  The government cannot be burdened with the expense of full-scale litigation in every case where a plaintiff merely recites allegations that, if true, would constitute a claim within an exception to immunity.

Conflict in Treatment of Governmental Immunity Motions Under MCR 2.116(C)(7)

Yet, the Court of Appeals is not consistent on this point.  In Kincaid v. Cardwell, 300 Mich. App. 513, 522 (2013), the Court of Appeals noted that where a fact question existed involving application of a bar to suit under MCR 2.116(C)(7), the question had to be submitted to a jury.

More recently, in Yono.v.MDOT.After.Remand.opn (Yono v. Michigan Dep’t of Transportation, Court of Appeals No. 308968 (released September 23, 2014)), the Court of Appeals, while recognizing the conflict of opinions in this area, conflated the (C)(7) standard with the “genuine issue of material fact” standard of (C)(10), as if there was no difference in application of these two court rules when assessing a motion for summary disposition.  This led to the result that a pled (but not necessarily proved) genuine issue of material fact (or a fact dispute) was sufficient to survive the summary disposition stage, even in a case against the government, which then leads to the case being submitted to the finder of fact.

This is error.  If this is the standard, then any well-pled allegation in a complaint setting for the parameters of an exception to immunity, and the factual allegations sufficient to fall within the exception will survive a motion for summary disposition on grounds of “immunity granted by law” under MCR 2.116(C)(7).

The Court of Appeals in this case got it right.  The trial court should decide the question “as a matter of law”.  In such cases, either party has an appeal by right to challenge the merits of the decision in the Court of Appeals, and the Court of Appeals has de novo reviewing authority over the case to check the trial court’s decision.

Otherwise, trial courts have the discretion to allow a case to proceed against the government, which is inconsistent with the jurisdictional view of governmental immunity and contrary to established case law, which preserves the government’s preexisting and inherent immunity from suit and liability in all but a small subset of narrowly applied circumstances.

Here is the Court of Appeals opinion:  hubbert v smart maj.OPN

And, the dissent:  hubbert v. smart .krause.dissent.OPN