The Highway Exception, Road Defects, and Governmental Immunity

It might be easy to assume that the government would be held liable if you encounter a dangerous road defect while driving (for example), and are injured as a result.  However, in Michigan, the nature of the defect determines whether or not governmental immunity applies. Generally speaking, the government is not liable for design or construction defects on the roadway, meaning that if the defect is due to an error in the design or construction the highway designed for “vehicular travel,” there is no duty to fix it.

The Court of Appeals recently encountered this exception in Sokolowski v County of Macomb, decided on December 17, 2013. In that case, a young child was injured while riding on a school bus in 2005.  The young girl was thrown from her seat and severely injured when the bus ran over a “crown” (imagine a substantial speed bump) at an intersection.  To appreciate the size of the crown and the damage it inflicted, consider the fact that the girl’s injuries occurred even though her wheelchair was “fixed to the deck of the bus by four restraint straps,” and she was further restrained in her chair by a “three-point lap shoulder belt.”  The crown was “well in excess” of the design standards approved by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

The plaintiff sued Macomb County alleging that the county had failed to “maintain” the road, specifically the intersection where the crown was located, in a reasonably safe condition. In filing suit, plaintiff argued that Macomb County could be sued under the “highway exception” to the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), which allows personal injury claims when said injury is caused by the government’s failure “to keep a highway . . .  in reasonable repair and in a condition reasonably safe and fit for travel . . .” The county argued that the exception did not apply, and that it was entitled to immunity.

The trial court agreed with the county and dismissed the case, which was upheld by the Court of Appeals.  Citing prior precedent from the Michigan Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the highway exception only requires the county to “repair and maintain” the road and not to “correct defects arising from the original design or construction” of the road.  The crown in this case, according to the Court, was a “construction defect,” and thus, there was no duty to repair.

Knowing when and if the highway exception to governmental immunity applies in Michigan can be quite difficult. Due to the complexity of some of these claims, it might be worthwhile to consult with a team of dedicated Michigan auto attorneys that can explain your rights and options should you ever be injured in an accident stemming from a road defect.

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