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Beals v. State

Supreme Court of Michigan

June 18, 2015

THERESA BEALS, Personal Representative of the ESTATE of WILLIAM T. BEALS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
STATE OF MICHIGAN, Defendant, and WILLIAM J. HARMAN, Defendant-Appellant

Argued: April 29, 2015.

Theresa Beals, as personal representative of the estate of William T. Beals, brought an action in the Barry Circuit Court against the state of Michigan and William J. Harman. William Beals drowned while swimming in a pool at the Michigan Career and Technical Institute, a state residential facility, which provides vocational and technical training to students with disabilities. Harman was the only lifeguard on duty when the drowning occurred. Plaintiff accused the state of violating the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PDCRA), MCL 37.1101 et seq., and accused Harman of gross negligence. Both defendants moved for summary disposition. The court, Amy L. McDowell, J., denied the motions. Harman appealed, and the state filed a delayed application for leave to appeal. The Court of Appeals granted the state's delayed application for leave to appeal and consolidated the state's appeal with Harman's appeal. In an unpublished opinion per curiam, the Court of Appeals, METER, P.J., and SHAPIRO, J. (O'CONNELL, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part), reversed the trial court's denial of summary disposition with regard to plaintiff's claim under the PDCRA, but affirmed the trial court's denial of summary disposition with regard to plaintiff's claim of gross negligence against Harman. Harman sought leave to appeal. The Supreme Court ordered and heard oral argument on whether to grant Harman's application for leave to appeal or take other action. 497 Mich. 930, 856 N.W.2d 695 (2014) .

For BEALS THERESA PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE, Plaintiff-Appellee: MATTHEW D. KLAKULAK, SOUTHFIELD, MI.

For WILLIAM J. HARMON, Defendant-Appellant: MARK E. DONNELLY, LANSING, MI.

Chief Justice: Robert P. Young, Jr. Justices: Stephen J. Markman, Mary Beth Kelly, Brian K. Zahra, Bridget M. McCormack, David F. Viviano, Richard H. Bernstein. BERNSTEIN, J. (dissenting).

OPINION

Page 6

[497 Mich. 365] BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH

Brian K. Zahra, J.

This case requires the Court to consider whether defendant lifeguard's failure to intervene in the deceased's drowning constituted " the proximate cause" of his death. While governmental agencies and their employees are generally immune from tort liability under the governmental tort liability act (GTLA), MCL 691.1401 et seq., MCL 691.1407(2)(c) provides an exception to this general rule when a governmental employee's conduct is both (1) grossly negligent and (2) " the proximate cause" of an injury, which this Court interpreted to mean the " most immediate, efficient, and direct cause" of that injury in Robinson v Detroit.[1]

Plaintiff brought the instant suit against defendant, a governmental employee, and pleaded avoidance of governmental immunity by alleging that defendant's grossly negligent behavior while lifeguarding and resulting failure to rescue plaintiff's drowning son constituted the proximate cause of his death. Subsequently, defendant filed a motion for summary disposition on the ground of governmental immunity, but the trial court denied defendant's motion. The Court of Appeals, in a split opinion, affirmed, concluding that a jury could reasonably find that defendant's failure to intervene constituted the proximate cause of the deceased's death. The Court

Page 7

of Appeals dissent instead concluded that defendant is immune from liability, because his actions were not the proximate cause, i.e., " the one most immediate, efficient, direct cause" of the deceased's death, as is required to impose tort liability under MCL 691.1407(2) and Robinson.

But for the applicable immunity statute, a question of fact may remain as to defendant's liability for the [497 Mich. 366] deceased's death. However, in light of the well-established principles of governmental immunity set forth by the Legislature and this Court, we agree with the Court of Appeals dissent that defendant is immune from tort liability. Applying this Court's rationale in Robinson to the instant case, defendant's failure to intervene in the deceased's drowning cannot logically constitute the " most immediate, efficient, and direct cause" of his death. The causal connection between defendant's failure to intervene and the deceased's drowning is simply too tenuous for it to constitute the proximate cause of his death. In our view, it is readily apparent that the far more " immediate, efficient, and direct cause" of the deceased's death was that which caused him to remain submerged in the deep end of the pool without resurfacing. That the reason for the deceased's prolonged submersion in the water is unknown does not make that unidentified reason any less the proximate cause of his death.

Accordingly, we hold that the trial court erred by denying summary disposition to defendant, because the exception to governmental immunity articulated in MCL 691.1407(2) is inapplicable in the instant matter. We therefore reverse in part the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remand this case to the Barry ...


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