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A Better Partnership
July 30, 2016

MSC “draws the line” on the highway exception to governmental immunity

In Yono v. Department of Transportation, No. 150364, the Michigan Supreme Court held that a parallel parking area along a highway is not among the portions of a highway designed for vehicular travel.  Accordingly, parallel parking areas on public roads that are clearly designated as such do not fall within the statutory highway exception to governmental immunity. 
 
Helen Yono parked her vehicle in a parking area located on the side of M-22.  While walking from her car, she fell and was injured.  Yono filed a claim against the Department of Transportation (“DOT”) under the highway exception to governmental immunity, arguing that that she was walking within the “improved area designed for vehicular travel” as required to fall within the exception.  She further argued that the DOT did not maintain the highway in reasonable repair so that it was reasonably safe for public travel.  The DOT filed for summary disposition, claiming that it was entitled to governmental immunity.  The Court of Claims denied the motion, stating that Yono had alleged an injury that occurred in the portion of the road designed for vehicular travel because a vehicle would have to travel to get to the parking spot.  The Court of Appeals affirmed.  The Supreme Court heard oral argument on the DOT’s application for leave to appeal and subsequently remanded the case to the Court of Appeals to consider what standard should apply in determining whether a portion of highway was designed for vehicular travel.  On remand, the Court of Appeals again affirmed the Court of Claims and concluded that because vehicles must travel in and out of parallel parking lanes in order for those lanes to serve their purpose, the parallel parking area on public road fell within the highway governmental immunity exception.
 
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that governmental immunity applies to  parallel parking lanes because the lanes are not designed for vehicular travel within the meaning of the of the highway exception.  The Court opined that simply because an area of a highway can support vehicular travel does not bring it within the highway exception.  Paint markings and other traffic control devices delineate how a highway is designed and redesigned over its useful life.  At the time of Yono’s injury, the area at issue was specifically marked as a parallel-parking lane.  Moreover, in Grimes v Dep’t of Transp, 475 Mich 72 (2006), the Court held that the fact that a shoulder could support even momentary vehicular travel was not enough to transform the shoulder into a lane designed for vehicular travel.  Likewise, a parallel parking area is not designed for vehicular travel, and the DOT was entitled to governmental immunity.
 
Justice McCormack, joined by Justices Viviano and Bernstein dissented, stating that a portion of a highway is designed for vehicular travel if, like a parking lane, it is designed to provide a route for a vehicle’s passage from one point to another.  Additionally, the dissenters noted that Grimes did not hold that the phrase “designed for vehicular travel” should be read to exclude any portion of a highway designed to be used as part of a vehicle’s intended route between two points.  

(Disclaimer:  Warner Norcross  & Judd submitted an amicus brief in this case and argued at oral argument on behalf of amici Michigan County Road Commission Self-Insurance Pool and the County Road Association.)

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