On the face of it, to the respective parties involved in this case--the Manistee County Road Commission in Copemish (the defendant) and the Estate Debra Hagerty-Kraemer, deceased (the plaintiff)--this automobile injury case looks like an open and shut case, with both sides predicting victory. But as we shall see, both sides would be well advised to curb the self-congratulatory fist-pumps until at least the dust has settled, so to speak.
The automobile injury accident happened in 2010. Debra Hagerty-Kraemer was traveling on an unpaved roadway. Traffic ahead created an impenetrable cloud of dust. Those conditions left Ms. Hagerty-Kraemer temporarily blinded. She crashed into a roadside tree and was killed.
Under a law passed by our legislators in Lansing, Michigan, the Governmental Immunity Act insulates the Road Commission from most so-called 'defective roadway' claims.
Immunity statutes are usually based on public policy considerations such as civic order and procedural efficiency.
In fact we inherited our Michigan governmental immunity statutes from merry old England. Over a thousand years ago, the notion that all laws emanate from the King gave rise to the principle that "the King can do no wrong", since the monarch was the law.
The stance of the injury victim in this Copemish case is that the surface of the roadway was defective and the defect caused the automobile accident. Under the immunity statute, proof that the surface of the roadway was defective is an exception to the immunity law.
The position of the Road Commission is that, if it is not required to pave a dirt road, can it be said that the surface of such a road is inherently defective? And if a driver enters onto an unpaved road, does he have a duty to drive in a safe manner under the prevailing conditions?
When in doubt, bring in the legal doctrines.
The doctrine of comparative negligence evolved out of the need for certainty and finality in the law of injury accidents. Prior to the advent of that principle, cases involving multiple parties to an accident, all of whom were accusing each other of negligence, were guided by the doctrine of contributory negligence. Under that principle, an accident victim who was largely responsible for the mishap could theoretically receive an award of damages, minus his own percentage of negligence. Aside from the potential for injustice, juries found the process confusing.
In contrast, the doctrine of comparative negligence lays down a bright-line limitation: A party who is more than 50% responsible for his injuries receives nothing. That said, any Michigander who has ever found himself in whiteout, lake effect blizzard conditions around the area of New Buffalo, Michigan or Saint Joseph, Michigan, knows that his only hope is to bring the vehicle to a stop, until conditions lift. If driving while blindfolded is inherently negligent, so, too is driving in zero visibility conditions.
Which is why most Southfield injury accident lawyers would call this one a win for the for the other side.