Michigan Supreme Court Uses Technicality to Deny Access to Courts in Suits Against the State

Michigan Supreme Court Uses Technicality to Deny Access to Courts in Suits Against the State

On June 5, 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court shut the door on two plaintiffs who had been injured by Michigan state employees.

On May 19, 2007, Lori Stone injured her neck when two different Michigan State Police patrol cars crashed into her automobile. Stone was required to undergo surgery to fuse two of her neck vertebrae as a result of the crash. Stone sued the Michigan State Police.

On March 11, 2011, Michelle Fairley was injured when a Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) employee, in an MDOC automobile, ran a red light and struck her car. Fairley faced “life-altering injuries — to the brain, neck and back — as well as associated pain, suffering, and emotional harm.” Fairley sued the MDOC.

Both of these plaintiffs filed statutorily required notices of intent to file a claim prior to their lawsuits. Both notices plainly stated the facts giving rise to the claims, and that they intended to hold the MDOC and Michigan State Police, respectively, liable. However, each notice contained a technical error. In Fairley’s case, her attorney signed the claim. In Stone’s case, the notice was not verified before an officer authorized to administer oaths.

The defendants objected and argued that these errors required the dismissal of the cases. The trial and appellate courts both disagreed. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, agreed with the two state agencies and dismissed the cases.

“Because the notices supplied by each plaintiff failed to meet the requirements of MCL 600.6431(1),” held the court, “plaintiffs failed to defeat the protection of governmental immunity to which MDOC and the Michigan State Police are entitled.”

The court reached this unfortunately shortsighted conclusion by strictly construing the statute which requires the notice of intent to file a claim. What the court did not consider, however, is that the purpose of such a notice is not just to “defeat the protection of governmental immunity,” but to put these agencies on notice that they are being held liable for a tort. There was no doubt that both agencies in question were on notice – they vigorously defended these claims.

The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision is not equitable, and closed the door to court on two plaintiffs who had legitimate injury claims, based on very minor technicalities. Decisions such as these undermine the public’s confidence in our judicial system.

See: Fairley v. Department of Corrections, No. 149722 and Stone v. Michigan State Police, No. 149940, Michigan Supreme Court (June 5, 2015).

Originally published in Criminal Legal News on December 27, 2017.