Michigan Supreme Court; Docket #161683; Published
Before the Entire Bench; Authored by Justice Bernstein
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Forthcoming; Link to Opinion; Link to Dissent; Link to Court of Appeals Opinion; Link to Court of Appeals Dissent
Court of Claims Litigation
In this 6-1 (Zahra, dissenting) decision authored by Justice Bernstein, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ holding regarding the notice requirements of MCL 691.1404—the “highway exception” to governmental tort liability—and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. The Supreme Court held that a complaint, filed with the Court of Claims within 120 days of the date of injury, can serve as sufficient ‘notice’ for purposes of MCL 691.1404. In other words, MCL 691.1404 does not require that a person injured by a highway defect file a separate notice with the Court of Claims before filing his or her complaint, so long as the complaint, itself, satisfies the rest of the statutory requirements.
Norman Champine was driving on I-696 in Macomb County on December 17, 2017, when a 20-pound chunk of concrete became dislodged either from the road or an overpass above his vehicle, smashed through the windshield of his car, and crushed his face. That same day, police notified the Michigan Department of Transportation (“MDOT”) of the incident, and Champine sent a separate notice to MDOT on December 28, 2017. Defendant acknowledged receipt of the notice on December 30, 2017, then, on February 6, 2018, Champine filed a complaint against MDOT in the Court of Claims, alleging negligence under the “highway exception” to the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), MCL 691.1401, et seq. Champine mailed an amended notice to MDOT the next day, February 7, 2018, in which he alleged “that the chunk of concrete came ‘from the roadbed’ and explained that the precise location of the defect could not be determined with any more specificity because of the extremely poor condition of this stretch of highway, which [he] stated contained more than ‘one thousand’ potholes.” Champine never filed either notice with the clerk of the Court of Claims, however, and thus after serving MDOT with his complaint on March 26, 2018, MDOT moved for summary disposition, arguing that Champine failed to comply with the statutory notice requirements of MCL 691.1404, because he did not file a notice—separate from the complaint—“in triplicate with the clerk of the court of claims” within 120 days of the date of injury. Alternatively, MDOT argued that Champine failed to describe the location and nature of the highway defect with sufficient specificity. The trial court granted summary disposition in favor of MDOT—finding that MCL 691.1404 requires filing of a separate notice with the Court of Claims within 120 days of the date of injury and, alternatively, that Champine did not describe the location and nature of the defect with sufficient specificity—and the Court of Appeals affirmed, addressing only MDOT’s argument regarding MCL 691.1404.
The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that Champine’s complaint, in and of itself, satisfied the notice requirements of MCL 691.1404. Nothing in the text of the statute, according to the Court, suggests that proper notice must be provided in some form other than a complaint, nor does anything in the text of the statute require “advance notice beyond the filing of the complaint.”
“Taking the plain meaning of ‘notice’ into account, we find that nothing in the text of MCL 691.1404(2) suggests that notice cannot be provided through the filing of a plaintiff’s complaint within the statutory notice period. A complaint filed within the statutory notice period, listing the factual circumstances and legal theories relevant to the cause of action, undoubtedly gives sufficient ‘warning’ or ‘legal notification’ of ‘the occurrence of the injury and the defect.’ See MCL 691.1404(1). We do not read “notice” in this context as requiring advance notice beyond the filing of the complaint. The text of the statute does not indicate that there must be some temporal gap between the filing of a notice and the initiation of a lawsuit; rather, the plain meaning of the word ‘notice’ in this context only suggests that the state must be made aware of the injury and the defect in accordance with MCL 691.1404(2). Here, plaintiff gave timely notice by filing his complaint in the Court of Claims “within 120 days from the time the injury occurred,” as required by MCL 691.1404(1).”
Justice Zahra dissented, quoting the following language from the GTLA—“ ‘[c]laims against the state authorized under the [GTLA] shall be brought in the manner provided in’ the revised judicature act of 1961 (RJA)”—and arguing that the word ‘authorized’ means that “highway defect” claims must first be authorized under the GTLA—i.e., by filing a separate, timely notice—in order for an in injured person to proceed with filing a complaint.
“Here, the GTLA expressly provides that ‘[c]laims against the state authorized under [the GTLA] shall be brought in the manner provided in’ the revised judicature act of 1961 (RJA). I conclude that this language means that a prospective highway-defect claim against the state must be separately ‘authorized’ under the GTLA and separately ‘brought in the manner provided’ in the RJA. A timely notice filed under the GTLA is required to ‘authorize’ the filing of a claim under the RJA irrespective of when a plaintiff files this statutory claim. Plaintiff did not duly file a single document under the GTLA to have ‘authorized’ the filing of a claim under the RJA. Since plaintiff’s claim was not authorized under the GTLA, it could not be brought under the RJA. There is no statutory basis that permits an unauthorized RJA claim to become authorized if the claim contains content that arguably would have satisfied a GTLA notice had that notice been properly and timely filed. Accordingly, I would affirm the result of our lower courts and deny plaintiff’s application.”