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A Better Partnership
January 05, 2015

MSC grants mini-oral argument to determine whether lifeguard’s failure to rescue was the proximate cause of student’s drowning death

In Estate of Beals v. State of Michigan and Harmon, No. 149901, the Michigan Supreme Court has granted mini-oral argument to consider whether a lifeguard who fails to notice and respond to a swimmer’s distress can be the proximate cause of that swimmer’s accidental drowning death.  The trial court determined this to be a question of fact unsuitable for summary disposition, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. 
William Beals was a 19 year old student at Michigan Career and Technical Institute (“MCTI”), a residential facility providing training to students with disabilities.  Beals had been diagnosed with autism and a learning disability.  On May 19, 2009, Beals was using the indoor swimming pool at the school’s facility when he died as the result of an accidental drowning.  At the time of his death, the students were under the supervision of defendant Harmon, a certified lifeguard who was both an employee and a student of the Institute.  Students present the day of the drowning later criticized defendant Harmon as being distracted and indicating that he spent much of his time talking to girls and playing with a football while Beals was in distress. 
Plaintiff Theresa Beals, mother of the decedent and personal representative of his estate, brought this action against defendant Harmon alleging Harmon acted with gross negligence and that this gross negligence was the proximate cause of the decedent’s death.  Additionally, Plaintiff brought a claim against the State of Michigan alleging the State violated the decedent’s rights under the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act by denying the disabled students the benefit of additional safety measures that were available to the public during open swims.
The Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court and held Beals was not denied full and equal access to MCTI’s facilities and services because of a disability and that summary disposition should therefore be granted in favor of the State.  However, the Court of Appeals affirmed the portion of the trial court’s ruling denying summary disposition for defendant Harmon, holding that a question of fact remained as to whether Harmon’s failure to intervene constituted the one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause of Beals’s death.  The Michigan Supreme Court has granted mini-oral argument to consider the sole question of whether defendant Harmon’s failure to act was the proximate cause of decedent’s death.

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