Briggs v. Knapp, 358641

CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan (US)
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM
PartiesTODD BRIGGS, Personal Representative of the Estate of OMARI BELL, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. JEFFREY KNAPP, Defendant-Appellant, and GABRIEL CARMONA and ADRIAN ROJO, Defendants.
Docket Number358641
Decision Date09 March 2023


TODD BRIGGS, Personal Representative of the Estate of OMARI BELL, Plaintiff-Appellee,

JEFFREY KNAPP, Defendant-Appellant,


No. 358641

Court of Appeals of Michigan

March 9, 2023


Kalamazoo Circuit Court LC No. 2020-000143-NI

Before: GLEICHER, C.J., and K. F. KELLY and LETICA, JJ.


Defendant, Jeffrey Knapp, appeals by leave granted[1] the order denying defendant's motion for summary disposition in favor of plaintiff, Todd Briggs, the personal representative of the Estate of Omari Bell (the decedent). We affirm.


Defendant was driving on the freeway when his vehicle collided with the decedent, a pedestrian. The decedent was tossed over the roof of defendant's vehicle and landed on the freeway where he was run over by a vehicle driven by defendant Gabriel Carmona and registered


to defendant Adrian Rojo.[2] Plaintiff filed an action against defendant alleging ordinary negligence citing common-law breach of duties by the driver and statutory motor vehicle violations.

Defendant denied responsibility for the accident. After it occurred, he pulled over to the side of the road. He was given sobriety tests, and the police concluded he was sober at the time of the accident.[3] Defendant testified that he was driving in the right lane with his cruise control set at approximately 70 miles per hour (mph) in accordance with his practice. He never saw the decedent until the impact occurred. Defendant testified that he was looking ahead at the roadway and was not distracted. He had his cellphone attached to the car's heater vent and denied making calls or texts at the time of the collision. Defendant denied seeing the decedent before the impact. He opined that he was driving in the center of the right lane, and the decedent entered the right lane of travel as evidenced by the damage to his vehicle at the passenger side. Defendant denied that he could have avoided the accident. He cited to the dark conditions, the all dark clothing worn by the decedent, and the lack of ambient lighting because of a nearby wall. The police interviewed defendant and found him to be forthcoming. The accident reconstructionist and the investigating officer concluded that the decedent was at fault for the accident, analogizing the vehicle/pedestrian accident to a vehicle/deer accident. Defendant was not ticketed for the accident.

Defendant moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), relying on his deposition testimony and the results of the police investigation. It was also asserted that the decedent tested positive for controlled substances and may have been more than 50% at fault for the accident under the circumstances. Additionally, defendant questioned the foundation for the opinion expressed by Timothy Robbins, plaintiff's expert, and that defendant could not be held negligent in light of the sudden emergency doctrine.

Plaintiff opposed the dispositive motion. Plaintiff noted that, before the accident, two motorists called 911 to report that a pedestrian was on the freeway or near the freeway off of westbound I-94. Although the decedent was wearing all dark clothing, he was visible to these individuals. Plaintiff cited to the duty owed by a driver to pedestrians at common-law and by statute and noted that the issue of breach of duty and causation generally presented an issue for the trier of fact. Additionally, it was noted that summary disposition was inappropriate when credibility issues were presented. Plaintiff also relied on the affidavit filed by Robbins which cited to the ability of other drivers to see the decedent on the roadway as well as vehicle and lighting factors, such as cleaning dim headlights or using bright headlights, that defendant could have taken. The trial court denied defendant's motion for summary disposition, concluding that there


were genuine issues of material fact particularly when two other drivers were able to observe the decedent.[4] We granted defendant's application for leave to appeal.


A trial court's ruling on a motion for summary disposition is reviewed de novo. Houston v Mint Group, LLC, 335 Mich.App. 545, 557; 968 N.W.2d 9 (2021). Summary disposition is appropriate pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(10) where there is "no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment or partial judgment as a matter of law." MCR 2.116(C)(10). When reviewing a motion for summary disposition challenged under MCR 2.116(C)(10), the court considers the affidavits, pleadings, depositions, admissions, and other admissible documentary evidence then filed in the action or submitted by the parties in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. MCR 2.116(G)(4), (G)(5); Buhl v City of Oak Park, 507 Mich. 236, 242; 968 N.W.2d 348 (2021).


Defendant asserts that the trial court erred in concluding that there were genuine issues of material fact when the decedent was dressed in dark clothing, there was a lack of lighting in the area, and defendant could not have avoided the accident. We disagree.


To establish a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must generally demonstrate: "(1) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, (2) breach of that duty by the defendant, (3) damages suffered by the plaintiff, and (4) that the damages were caused by the defendant's breach of duty." Composto v Albrecht, 328 Mich.App. 496, 499; 938 N.W.2d 755 (2019). Generally, whether a defendant owes a duty of care to a plaintiff presents a question of law for the court to determine. Hill v Sears, Roebuck &Co, 492 Mich. 651, 659; 822 N.W.2d 190 (2012); Sabbagh v Hamilton Psychological Servs, PLC, 329 Mich.App. 324, 348-349; 941 N.W.2d 685 (2019). "Duty is the legal obligation to conform one's conduct to a particular standard to avoid subjecting others to an unreasonable risk of harm." Composto, 328 Mich.App. at 499 (citation omitted). This duty, typically described as an ordinary negligence standard of care, requires that a defendant exercise ordinary care to a plaintiff in light of the circumstances. Id. at 499-500.


"Duty is essentially a question of whether the relationship between the actor and the injured person gives rise to any legal obligation on the actor's part for the benefit of the injured person." Brown v Brown, 478 Mich. 545, 552; 739 N.W.2d 313 (2007). To determine whether a duty exists, the court may consider factors such as the foreseeability of the harm, the degree of certainty of injury, the close connection between the conduct and the injury, any moral blame correlated to the conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, and the burdens and consequences of imposing a duty and liability for a breach. Id. at 553 (citation omitted).

In Malone v Vining, 313 Mich. 315, 321; 21 N.W.2d 144 (1946), our Supreme Court delineated the following obligations or duty owed by a pedestrian:

Under present-day traffic conditions a pedestrian, before crossing a street or highway, must (1) make proper observation as to approaching traffic, (2) observe approaching traffic and form a judgment as to its distance away and its speed, (3) continue his observations while crossing the street or highway, and (4) exercise that degree of care and caution which an ordinarily careful and prudent person would exercise under like circumstances. In Pearce v Rodell, 283 Mich. 19, 37[; 276 N.W. 883 (1937)], we approved the following charge by the trial court:
"Pedestrians upon the public highway have a right to assume in the first instance the driver of an automobile will use ordinary care and caution for the protection of pedestrians, nevertheless the pedestrian must not rest content on such assumption, if there comes a time where he knows, or ought to know by the exercise of reasonable care, he is being placed in danger. He must take such care for his own safety as a reasonable, careful, prudent person would do under similar circumstances."
"We have repeatedly held that one must look before entering a place of possible danger, such as crossing an intersection, and maintain observation while crossing." Carey v De Rose, 286 Mich. 321, 323[; 282 N.W. 165 (1938)].
"If one is to make a proper observation of an oncoming car, * * * the observation must include not only the distance the approaching car is from the point of possible collision but also some observation and judgment of its approximate speed." Ayers v Andary, 301 Mich. 418, 425[; 3 N.W.2d 328 (1942)].

A driver also owes duties to pedestrians. Specifically, "automobile drivers must notice persons in the street, must use reasonable and ordinary care not to run down pedestrians on the highway, [and] must obey statutes governing the use of automobiles[.]" Birkhill v Todd, 20 Mich.App. 356, 360; 174 N.W.2d 56 (1969). Additionally, it is negligence for the driver with ample space to pass a pedestrian on a highway to guide his vehicle and strike the pedestrian in passing. Id.

Once the duty element of a negligence action is established, the breach of duty requirement must be examined. The trier of fact then decides, whether, in light of the particular facts of the case, a breach of the duty occurred. Meyers v Rieck, ____ Mich. ____, ____; N.W.2d _____ (2022) (Docket No. 162094), slip op at 9. Thus, the fact-finder renders a determination regarding what constitutes reasonable care under the circumstances. Id.; see also Riddle v McLouth Steel Products Corp,


440 Mich. 85, 96; 485 N.W.2d 676 (1992) ("Once a defendant's legal duty is established, the reasonableness of the defendant's conduct under that standard is generally a question for the jury. The jury must decide whether the defendant breached the legal duty owed to the plaintiff, that the defendant's breach was the...

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