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Is government immune from auto accident lawsuits for brain injury and pain and suffering?

October 10, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

Court affirms verdict for auto accident victim who suffered ‘bodily injury’ and sued under Michigan’s motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity

brain injury lawsuits

Tension over what the words “bodily injury” mean continues to build as I write these words. Michigan lawyers are waiting for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue of governmental immunity and what attorneys can and cannot say in regards to injuries and pain and suffering in governmental immunity lawsuits.

In the meantime, the Michigan Court of Appeals has recently released an important new opinion about governmental immunity and the extent to which a claim for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and pain and suffering can be brought after an automobile accident.

In Mennare v. Ramsden, the Court of Appeals delivered welcome news  when it upheld a jury’s verdict for Carl Mennare, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of a crash caused by a Lansing police officer.

One of the issues in Mennare was whether his injury was a “bodily injury” for purposes of the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity.

Generally, under Michigan law, governmental entities, such as police departments, are immune from tort liability for damages caused their own negligence. However, under the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity, a governmental agency:

“shall be liable for bodily injury … resulting from the negligent operation by any officer, agent, or employee of the governmental agency, of a motor vehicle of which the governmental agency is owner …” (MCL 691.1405)

The other issue in Mennare was whether Mr. Mennare could recover for pain and suffering, i.e., non-economic loss, under the motor vehicle exception.

Fortunately – and correctly – the court ruled in Mr. Mennare’s favor on both issues, affirming  the jury’s verdict award of  “damages for past and future wage loss, as well as noneconomic damages.” On the two pertinent issues, the Court of Appeals concluded:

  • “Injury to the brain is ‘bodily injury’ … Plaintiff was diagnosed with a concussion, post-concussive syndrome, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. Defendant failed to present any testimony from a medical doctor which disputed those diagnoses.”
  • “[R]etroactive application of the Hunter [v. Sisco] holding [“to the extent that might apply to bar noneconomic loss damages,” i.e., pain and suffering] … is inappropriate in this matter.”

As for the second point, the court explained:

  • “[F]irst, defendant never raised the issue in the trial court whether noneconomic damages were allowed under MCL 691.1405.”
  • “Second, defendant did not object to the jury instructions with regard to noneconomic damages either before or after the jury was instructed.”
  • “Third, defendant did not object to the verdict form which clearly permitted a finding of noneconomic damages.”

The favorable appellate outcome for Mr. Mennare was far from a certainty in light of some of the legal rulings that have preceded it. These are cases I’ve written about on this legal blog, and ones that are causing quite a bit of confusion among judges and lawyers throughout the state, namely:

  • In Hunter v. Sisco, the Court of Appeals overruled a trial judge’s determination that the motor-vehicle exception’s “limitation to recovery for bodily injury ‘embraces and encompasses pain and suffering associated with the bodily injury’ . . . .”
  • Similarly, in Conley v. Charter Township of Brownstown, the Court of Appeals overruled the trial judge’s conclusion that “bodily injury is anything that results from an injury, whether it’s psychological or otherwise.”

To learn more, take a look at our blog post, “Cases that apply Motor Vehicle Exception to pain and suffering in governmental immunity car accidents.”

As I wrote above,  the Mennare ruling won’t be the last word on the meaning of “bodily injury” in the motor vehicle exception and whether those words encompass a traumatic brain injury and pain and suffering such as what Mr. Mennare suffered. In its March 21, 2014, order in Hunter v. Sisco, wherein the Michigan Supreme Court said it would agree to review the case, the high court said it was interested in the following “limited” issue:

“[W]hether damages for pain and suffering and/or emotional distress may qualify as a “bodily injury” that permits a plaintiff to avoid the application of governmental immunity from tort liability under the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity …”

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