Beals v. Michigan, Docket No. 149901.

CourtSupreme Court of Michigan
Citation871 N.W.2d 5,497 Mich. 363
Docket NumberDocket No. 149901.
Decision Date18 June 2015

497 Mich. 363
871 N.W.2d 5


Docket No. 149901.

Supreme Court of Michigan.

Argued April 29, 2015.
Decided June 18, 2015.

871 N.W.2d 6

Fieger, Fieger, Kenney, Giroux & Harrington, PC (by Geoffrey N. Fieger, Southfield and Matthew D. Klakulak, Bloomfield Hills), for Theresa Beals.

Bill Schuette, Attorney General, Aaron D. Lindstrom, Solicitor General, Matthew Schneider, Chief Legal Counsel, and Mark E. Donnelly, Assistant Attorney General, for William J. Harman.

Garan Lucow Miller, PC, Detroit (by Rosalind Rochkind ), for the Michigan Municipal League, the Michigan Municipal League Liability and Property Pool, and the Michigan Townships Association.


497 Mich. 365

This case requires the Court to consider whether defendant lifeguard's failure to intervene in the deceased's drowning constituted "the proximate cause" of his death. While governmental agencies and their employees are generally immune from tort liability under the governmental tort liability act (GTLA), MCL 691.1401 et seq., MCL 691.1407(2)(c) provides an exception to this general rule when a governmental employee's conduct is both (1) grossly negligent and (2) "the proximate cause" of an injury, which this Court interpreted to mean the "most immediate, efficient, and direct cause" of that injury in Robinson v. Detroit.1

Plaintiff brought the instant suit against defendant, a governmental employee, and pleaded avoidance of governmental immunity by alleging that defendant's grossly negligent behavior while lifeguarding and resulting failure to rescue plaintiff's drowning son constituted the proximate cause of his death. Subsequently, defendant filed a motion for summary disposition on the ground of governmental immunity, but the trial court denied defendant's motion. The Court of Appeals, in a split opinion, affirmed, concluding that a jury could reasonably find that defendant's failure to intervene constituted the proximate cause of the deceased's death. The Court

871 N.W.2d 7

of Appeals dissent instead concluded that defendant is immune from liability, because his actions were not the proximate cause, i.e., "the one most immediate, efficient, direct cause" of the deceased's death, as is required to impose tort liability under MCL 691.1407(2) and Robinson.

But for the applicable immunity statute, a question of fact may remain as to defendant's liability for the

497 Mich. 366

deceased's death. However, in light of the well-established principles of governmental immunity set forth by the Legislature and this Court, we agree with the Court of Appeals dissent that defendant is immune from tort liability. Applying this Court's rationale in Robinson to the instant case, defendant's failure to intervene in the deceased's drowning cannot logically constitute the "most immediate, efficient, and direct cause" of his death. The causal connection between defendant's failure to intervene and the deceased's drowning is simply too tenuous for it to constitute the proximate cause of his death. In our view, it is readily apparent that the far more "immediate, efficient, and direct cause" of the deceased's death was that which caused him to remain submerged in the deep end of the pool without resurfacing. That the reason for the deceased's prolonged submersion in the water is unknown does not make that unidentified reason any less the proximate cause of his death.

Accordingly, we hold that the trial court erred by denying summary disposition to defendant, because the exception to governmental immunity articulated in MCL 691.1407(2) is inapplicable in the instant matter. We therefore reverse in part the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remand this case to the Barry Circuit Court for entry of an order granting summary disposition in favor of defendant.


The deceased, William Beals, a 19–year–old diagnosed with a learning disability and an unspecified level of autism, drowned on May 19, 2009, while swimming in a pool at the Michigan Career and Technical Institute (MCTI), a state residential facility providing vocational and technical training to students with disabilities.

497 Mich. 367

Beals and approximately 24 other disabled students were using the MCTI indoor swimming pool for a recreational swim. According to his mother, Beals was an "accomplished swimmer" who had been swimming independently for years. The only lifeguard on duty that evening was defendant William Harman, a certified lifeguard who was both an employee and student of MCTI. The record indicates that Harman suffers from attention deficit disorder.

At some point during the recreational swim, Beals waded into the shallow end of the pool where he "surface dove" into the deep end and continued to swim underwater. He never resurfaced under his own power. There is no evidence in the record that Beals visibly struggled in the water or that Harman or any of the 24 other students in the pool area witnessed Beals in distress. Indeed, it was not until Beals had been underwater for approximately eight minutes that another student wearing goggles put his head underwater and noticed Beals's body in the deep end of the pool next to the wall. This student pulled Beals from the bottom of the pool after making as many as three unsuccessful attempts to call for Harman's attention. When Harman heard other students yelling for help, he raced to the deep end of the pool, removed Beals from the water, and attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) until other staff members arrived. Beals was then transported to a hospital where he was declared deceased. A subsequent autopsy revealed that the

871 N.W.2d 8

cause of Beals's death was "drowning" and the manner of death was "accidental." The underlying reason for Beals's accidental drowning is unknown.

On January 26, 2011, Beals's mother, Theresa Beals, filed suit in Barry Circuit Court as the personal representative of Beals's estate. Plaintiff sued both Harman

497 Mich. 368

and the State of Michigan, seeking economic and noneconomic damages for the alleged wrongful death of her son. She accused the state (MCTI) of violating the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act, MCL 37.1101 et seq.,2 and Harman of gross negligence. In proofs developed by plaintiff, students at MCTI criticized Harman's attention to swimmers, describing him as "distracted" and indicating that he was talking to girls and playing with a football during the period in which Beals drowned. According to MCTI video surveillance footage of the events preceding the discovery of Beals's body, Harman did not once sit in the lifeguard observation stand, which, according to a report penned by plaintiff's expert, would have given Harman the best view of the pool, nor did Harman notice or observe that Beals had slipped under the water until the students called for his attention about eight minutes after Beals submerged in the deep end. Plaintiff does not allege, nor does the video indicate, that Harman caused Beals to enter the pool or that he took any action to influence Beals's behavior while Beals was in the water.

Harman moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(7) on the basis of governmental immunity, asserting that his conduct was not "the proximate cause" of Beals's death, as is required to impose tort liability on a governmental employee under MCL 691.1407(2). The trial court issued an order denying summary disposition, finding that "reasonable minds could differ as to the question of gross negligence and if the proximate cause of death was the gross negligence of William Harman and/or the State of Michigan."

497 Mich. 369

Harman appealed the trial court's decision in the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court in a split opinion.3 The majority upheld the trial court's denial of Harman's motion for summary disposition, holding that "[g]iven the evidence presented, reasonable minds could conclude that Harmon's [sic] failure to intervene constituted the one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause of Beals's death."4 Judge O'CONNELL dissented in part, instead concluding that the undisputed facts establish that defendant's conduct cannot be deemed "the proximate cause" of Beals's death, and that the trial court should have granted summary disposition in favor of Harman under MCR 2.116(C)(7).5

Harman sought leave to appeal in this Court. We directed the Clerk to schedule oral argument on whether to grant the application or take other action.6 We specifically requested that the parties address "whether defendant William J. Harman's [sic] alleged failure to act was the proximate cause of the decedent's death. MCL 691.1407(2)(c)."7

871 N.W.2d 9


The applicability of governmental immunity is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo on appeal.8 This Court also reviews de novo a trial court's determination regarding a...

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  • Ray v. Swager
    • United States
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    ...injuries. MCL 691.1407(2)(c) ; Robinson v. City of Detroit, 462 Mich. 439, 462, 613 N.W.2d 307 (2000) ; Beals v. Michigan, 497 Mich. 363, 871 N.W.2d 5 (2015).[7 ]II. STANDARD OF REVIEW The applicability of governmental immunity is a question of law that is reviewed de novo.8 We also rev......
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