Clearly, there are more cases in the Top LDF 25 addressing issues of governmental immunity/liability than any other single category of cases. The reason is obvious: although municipalities are generally immune from tort (negligence) liability when they are engaged in a governmental function, those situations that “fall outside” of the general rule can be costly. One adverse court decision can lead to a string of “bad” decisions with disastrous impact on the municipal community. The LDF has acted very aggressively when it appears that a particular case could lead to bad results for many other municipalities.
The Governmental Tort Liability Act, enacted in 1964, was amended extensively in 1986 with substantial involvement of the League’s legislative advocates. The amendments helped clarify a number of liability/immunity issues in favor of governmental agencies.
Exceptions to governmental immunity
Since 1986, most of the governmental immunity cases have been focused on the major exceptions to governmental immunity—failure to keep highways in reasonable repair, the negligent operation of government-owned motor vehicles, and dangerous or defective conditions in public buildings.
The apparent influence of LDF amicus briefs is particularly interesting in the so-called police pursuit cases in the context of the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity.
In the past several years, the Michigan Supreme Court has narrowed the liability of municipalities in the police pursuit cases. Persons who have suffered injuries or death during a police pursuit have sued municipalities under the motor vehicle exception to the Governmental Tort Liability Act. The motor vehicle exception states that a governmental agency is liable for injury and damage resulting from the negligent operation of its vehicle. The following two police pursuit cases highlight the restrictions made by the Court in its interpretation of the Act.
In 1998, the Supreme Court’s decision in Ewing v Detroit permitted a jury to decide whether the municipality could be liable to the injured driver of an “innocent” vehicle struck by a vehicle pursued by police. In that case, LDF amicus counsel argued that the “negligent operation” of a vehicle should be limited to the physical act of driving and that police pursuit is not a proximate cause of the pursued driver’s flight and injuries resulting from the flight.
In 2000, Mary Massaron Ross, the LDF amicus counsel in the Ewing case, made similar arguments, this time as outside counsel for Detroit in Robinson v City of Detroit. Fortunately, in contrast to its earlier decision, the Michigan Supreme Court found in favor of municipalities, restricting the parameters of liability in police pursuit cases and overruling the result in Ewing. Rosalind Rochkind prepared the LDF amicus brief in the Robinson case. By allowing such cases to be decided by a judge, prior to a jury trial, the potential for local government liability is greatly reduced.