Let’s Change the Laws on Government Immunity

February 16, 2018

Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press recently wrote an op-ed that explored the role government immunity plays in denying liability and responsibility for government employees whose poor decision making has caused harm. (Who pays when the government screws up? 2/4/18). It’s an interesting read, as Dickerson looks at the historical background that spawned the government immunity concept and traces it back to the monarchy form of rule in Europe.

Fast forward a few hundred years and it’s clear to see that elimination, or at least a major overhaul of government immunity is long overdue. Specifically, when it comes to maintaining draconian immunity laws under the guise of protecting tax payer dollars, we must recognize two important developments over the last century. First, state and local governments are not without the financial means to defend lawsuits and pay damages to those they have injured. Secondly, most if not all municipalities are insured against the potential losses.   Thus, “economics” is no longer a valid justification for creating insurmountable barriers to the courtroom for those who have suffered at the hands of government employees and officials. (Think Flint water crisis and other government-related environmental disasters, just for starters.)

Perhaps we should give more serious discussion to amending Michigan’s Government Immunity Act, which protects state officials and public school employees from gross negligence. The Act no longer meets the needs of children who are bullied, have ongoing mental health issues, or are experiencing or acting on suicidal thoughts. The K-12 school setting has always posed challenges to kids’ physical and emotional health; however, the explosive growth of texting and social media has increased the dangers for children. Yet teachers who witness troubling behaviors such as crying, fighting or acting out and do not act on their concerns by notifying parents or school authorities are protected by government immunity when these behaviors escalate to the point of injury or death. This is not a hypothetical situation. It’s happening in Michigan.

The overwhelming majority of teachers and school staff (all ultimately government employees) want to protect students, but those who fail to act to potentially save a child’s life through something as simple as an in-person conversation, phone call or text need to be held accountable – and government immunity generally doesn’t allow for that.

The examples I cite above are not the only type of government immunity. I’m currently working on a case where a public school teacher’s failure to ensure a student’s safety in a high school shop case resulted in serious and permanent harm to the student’s hand. The court sided with my client (the student) arguing that government immunity should not apply in this case and a jury should decide the outcome. That was a watershed moment in what is hopefully the beginning of other rulings that will further whittle away unnecessary and antiquated government immunity protections.

  1. Vince Colella is a personal injury and civil rights attorney with Moss & Colella in Southfield, Michigan. For more than two decades, Vince has tried and won cases in State and Federal Courts throughout Michigan. His extensive trial experience and expertise includes automobile negligence, police brutality and misconduct, premises liability, sexual assault, construction and trucking accidents, insurance disputes, sexual harassment, discrimination and wrongful death.

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