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June 21, 2015

MSC: Governmental employee’s failure to intervene in victim’s already initiated drowning does not transform inaction into the proximate cause of the victim’s death

In Beals v. Michigan, No. 149901, the Michigan Supreme Court held that a lifeguard’s failure to intervene does not satisfy the proximate cause element for the exemption to governmental immunity articulated in MCL 691.1407(2).
 
Theresa Beals, representing the estate of her deceased son William Beals, filed suit in the Barry Circuit Court against William J. Harman and the State of Michigan. William Beals, a 19-year old who was diagnosed with autism, drowned in a pool at the Michigan Career and Technical Institute—a state residential facility that provides technical and vocational training to students with disabilities. Harman was the only lifeguard on duty when the incident occurred. Plaintiff claimed the State of Michigan violated the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PDCRA), and accused Harman of gross negligence. Both defendants moved for summary disposition. The circuit court denied both motions, and the defendants appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of summary disposition concerning plaintiff’s claim against the state, but affirmed the trial court’s denial of summary disposition with regard to plaintiff’s claim of gross negligence against Harman.
 
The Michigan Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part. Under the government tort liability act (GTLA), MCL 691.1401 et seq., governmental agencies and their employees are generally immune from tort liability. The MCL 691.1407(2)(c) exception to the rule applies when a governmental employee’s conduct is both 1) grossly negligent and 2) the proximate cause of an injury, which the Michigan Supreme Court interprets as the “most immediate, efficient, and direct cause” of the injury. Robinson v Detroit, 462 Mich 439 (2000). The sole issue before the Court was whether Harman was the proximate cause of the victim’s death. The plaintiff alleged that Harman was the proximate cause of the victim’s death because Harman’s inattentiveness prevented him from attempting a timely rescue. Harman did not challenge whether his conduct was grossly negligent; however, he did argue that his failure to intervene was not the proximate cause of the victim’s death. The Michigan Supreme Court held that while it is unclear what caused the victim to remain under water, he voluntarily entered the pool and voluntarily dove under the water; therefore, the far more immediate, efficient, and direct cause of the victim’s death was the unknown variable which caused the victim to remain submerged in the pool. As such, Harman was not the proximate cause of Beals’s death, and the lower court erred in denying summary disposition in favor of Harman.
 
Justice Bernstein dissented.  He believed that the lifeguard’s failure to respond was the “one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause of death.”  By pointing to an unknown health event as the proximate cause places an “unenviable burden” on plaintiff to prove a negative.  Accordingly, Justice Bernstein would have denied leave to appeal.

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