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Can high school coach be sued for pedestrian-car accident injuries to student runner?

August 29, 2017 by Steven M. Gursten

Court rules proximate cause depends on the foreseeability of this pedestrian-car accident when a junior high school runner is told by school coach to cross street against Do Not Walk sign; guidance for auto lawyers on MI’s Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA)

Pedestrian-car accident

Was a cross-country coach’s instruction to his team to cross an intersection against the “Do Not Walk” symbol the proximate cause of one of his school runners being struck by a car and injured in a pedestrian-car accident?

That depends, said the Michigan Supreme Court, on whether the 13-year-old’s injuries were foreseeable to the Chelsea High School coach who, after seeing a car approaching in the distance, told his athletes to run across the street, against a “Do Not Walk” traffic signal.

Specifically, in Ray v. Swager, a five-justice majority ruled:

Although the “factual causes” of a car crash victim’s injuries must be determined, “[u]nder the GTLA [Governmental Tort Liability Act], a proper proximate cause analysis must assess foreseeability … Proximate cause requires determining whether the defendant’s negligence foreseeably caused the plaintiff’s injuries.”

Who can be sued — the coach, the driver, or both, in this pedestrian-car accident?

I decided to write about the Ray case today because my hunch is that the Governmental Tort Liability Act is among the most misunderstood by Michigan injury lawyers. I wonder if we — meaning my fellow auto accident lawyers in this state — have been so conditioned by so many previous cases interpreting the GTLA, we erroneously believe the bar to being able to bring a successful and viable claim under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) is nearly impossible.

Many Michigan lawyers and judges would say that the school coach in this case would have been immune from any tort or personal injury lawsuit filed under the GTLA. Under the GTLA, a governmental employee is “immune from tort liability” if, among other things, his conduct was not “the proximate cause of the injury.” (MCL 691.1407(2))

The Washtenaw County trial court rejected the coach’s claim, but the judges who heard this case in the Michigan Court of Appeals bit — hook, line and sinker. The appellate judges concluded (perhaps myopically) that “the proximate cause” of the young runner’s injuries was not the coach’s instruction to cross the intersection when the runners didn’t have the right of way and when a car was approaching.

Instead, the Court of Appeals explained:

  • “[T]he presence of the driver in the roadway and [Kersch]’s own actions were more immediate and direct causes of [Kersch]’s injuries …”
  • “‘[T]he most proximate cause of [plaintiff’s] injuries is the fact that [Kersch] was struck by a moving vehicle.’”

Fortunately, that’s not the law in this state. The justices on the Michigan Supreme Court said this was an overly simplistic and erroneously narrow legal analysis. It wasn’t enough to necessarily give this school employee legal immunity under the Governmental Tort Liability Act:

  • “We hold that the Court of Appeals failed to correctly analyze proximate cause because it only weighed various factual causes of [the young runner’s] injuries to determine whether one of them was a more direct cause of plaintiff’s injuries than defendant’s conduct.”
  • “The Court of Appeals’ analysis failed to properly distinguish between factual causation and legal causation.”
  • “Determining whether an actor’s conduct was ‘the proximate cause’ under the GTLA does not involve a weighing of factual causes. Instead, so long as the defendant is a factual cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, then the court should address legal causation by assessing foreseeability and whether the defendant’s conduct was the proximate cause.”

Ray v. Swager provides important clarification for personal injury lawyers on scope of liability of governmental employees

For any Michigan personal injury attorney trying to help a person injured by a governmental employee, whether in a car crash or otherwise, this is an important ruling.

By reminding us of the role that “foreseeability” plays in the “proximate cause” analysis under the GTLA, the Supreme Court has reminded us that governmental employees are not automatically immune from tort liability lawsuits just because they are not the most direct cause of a person’s injuries. This ruling puts the brakes on arguments like the coach’s in Ray.

The school coach may not have been behind the wheel when the student was hit by a car, but that doesn’t translate into immunity from any lawsuit if his instructions helped cause this pedestrian-car accident.

What is the law on proximate cause in a pedestrian-car accident?

The Michigan Supreme Court in Ray provided the following general principles about proximate cause:

  • “Proximate cause, also known as legal causation, … is an essential element of a negligence claim. It ‘involves examining the foreseeability of consequences, and whether a defendant should be held legally responsible for such consequences.’ Proximate cause is distinct from cause in fact, also known as factual causation, which ‘requires showing that “but for” the defendant’s actions, the plaintiff’s injury would not have occurred.’ Courts must not conflate these two concepts.”
  • “In any negligence case, including one involving a government actor’s gross negligence, a court must … assess proximate cause, that is, legal causation, which requires a determination of whether it was foreseeable that the defendant’s conduct could result in harm to the victim.”
  • “[U]nder the GTLA, we have held that when assessing whether a governmental employee was ‘the proximate cause’ of the plaintiff’s injuries, a court must determine whether the defendant’s conduct was ‘the one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause of the injury …’”

How does proximate cause affect a government employee’s tort liability?

Under Michigan’s Governmental Tort Liability Act, so long as a government employee’s conduct wasn’t “the proximate cause” of another person’s injury, then the employee will be “immune from tort liability for an injury to [that] person” and, thus, cannot be sued. (MCL 691.1407(2)(c))

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