Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #356848; Unpublished
Judges Ronayne Krause, Jansen, and Swartzle; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion
Motor-Vehicle Exception to Governmental Tort Liability Act
Sudden Emergency Doctrine
In this unanimous, unpublished, per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of Defendant Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation’s (“SMART”) motion for summary disposition, seeking dismissal of Plaintiff Paula Day’s auto negligence action against it. The Court of Appeals held that there was sufficient evidence to create a question of fact as to whether a SMART bus driver, Timothy Michael Martin, acted negligently in rear-ending a streetsweeper which was obscured, to some degree, by a cloud of dust it generated.
Paula Day was traveling on a SMART bus when Timothy Michael Martin, the bus’s driver, rear-ended a streetsweeper owned by National Industrial Maintenance-Michigan, Inc. (“NIMM”). The crash happened just beyond an intersection at which the speed limit drops from 50 miles per hour to 45 miles per hour, and the evidence showed that Martin accelerated before reaching the intersection, such that he was traveling 49 miles per hour—four miles above the speed limit—at the moment he rear-ended the streetsweeper. After the crash, Martin claimed in an incident report that he was unable to see the streetsweeper ahead of him because it was completely shrouded by a cloud of dust, and the bus’s dashcam footage from the incident confirms that there was, in fact, a cloud of dust. However, the dashcam footage also shows that the streetsweeper and its flashing lights were clearly visible to Martin before it entered the cloud of dust, and that the other vehicles traveling in parallel lanes slowed down upon reaching the cloud of dust. Furthermore, the dashcam footage shows that the streetsweeper’s flashing lights could be seen even through the cloud of dust, and that they flashed multiple times before Martin applied his brakes, approximately two seconds before rear-ending the streetsweeper.
Day filed a personal injury lawsuit against both SMART and NIMM after the accident, and SMART moved for summary disposition, arguing that the streetsweeper constituted a sudden emergency—because, by the time it became visible to Martin beyond the cloud of dust, it was too late for him to brake to avoid hitting it—and that Martin was not negligent, therefore, purusnat to the sudden emergency doctrine. The trial court disagreed—finding that a question of fact existed as to whether Martin should have known that he was traveling behind the street sweeper and slowed down upon witnessing it disappear into the cloud of dust.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of SMART’s motion for summary disposition, holding that a question of fact existed as to whether Martin was negligent in his operation of the SMART bus. At the outset of its analysis, the Court noted that the sudden emergency doctrine is “little more than a refined application of the reasonable prudent person standard.” In this case, even if the dashcam footage was clearer than what would have been perceptible to the human eye—a question of fact, in and of itself—and the cloud of dust did, in fact, completely shroud the streetsweeper, there was still a question of fact as to whether it was reasonable for Martin to not brake upon reaching a cloud of dust which was so thick that it completely obscured a streetsweeper he should have seen in front of him just moments prior. Not only did he not brake, however, but he actually accelerated prior to reaching the intersection and the cloud of dust, such that he was traveling over the posted speed limit at the moment he made contact. Thus, there was also a presumption of negligence based on his speeding, and at the very least, a question of fact as to whether it was reasonable, vis-à-vis the sudden emergency doctrine, for him to be driving at that speed despite the clear presence of a large cloud of dust ahead.
“We do not think the dispositive inquiry in this matter is whether the street sweeper was expected. Rather, the dispositive inquiry is whether either the sweeper or the cloud was visible, an inquiry that does not turn on whether the driver was actually looking at it. Vander Laan, 385 Mich at 233. Presuming the sweeper or the dust cloud were unexpected, the video evidence again shows that the cloud was visible well before Martin made any effort to slow the bus. Furthermore, several flashes of the street sweeper’s strobe light are visible through the cloud before Martin makes any effort to apply the brakes. Finally, the parties dispute whether the sweeper’s flashing lights are visible in the lane ahead almost half a minute before the collision, but the video, especially the darkened video, strongly suggests they were. By implication, Martin should have been aware that he was following a vehicle with flashing lights before it disappeared into the cloud. In any event, if it was too dark to see, then Martin’s failure to reduce his speed would also be evidence of negligence rather than helplessness. See People v Campbell, 237 Mich 424, 440-441; 212 NW 97 (1927). Finally, the evidence shows that Martin was familiar with the route and would have been aware of the impending speed limit reduction, and speed limit signs demark the point at which the speed limit itself changes, not the point at which a driver should begin decelerating. See People v Ray, 2 Mich App 623, 628; 141 NW2d 320 (1966).
As noted, the sudden emergency doctrine is little more than a refined application of the reasonable prudent person standard. Ultimately, if either the cloud or the sweeper was visible, then there is at least a question of fact for the jury whether Martin was negligent. More importantly, there can be no dispute that several presumptions of negligence apply, and the jury must consider whether those presumptions were overcome unless ‘at the very least’ there is ‘clear, positive, and credible evidence opposing the presumption.’ White v Taylor Distributing Co, Inc, 275 Mich App 615, 621-622; 739 NW2d 132 (2007), aff’d 482 Mich 136 (2008). SMART has provided no such evidence. To the extent the video recording is ambiguous, its interpretation is a question for the trier of fact. To the extent the video recording is clear, it supports an inference that Martin was negligent.”
The Court of Appeals also rejected SMART’s argument that the streetsweeper driver’s negligence was the cause of Day’s injuries, not Martin’s negligence in operating the bus. The Court noted that there was “indeed some evidence in the record to the effect that the sweeper might have been operated improperly,” but “that would not necessarily do more than make NIMM a potential joint tortfeasor. It would not inherently mean SMART’s negligence did not cause plaintiff’s injuries.” To the contrary, “the evidence clearly shows a question of fact whether plaintiff’s injuries ‘resulted from’ Martin’s negligence.”