Pittman v. City of Taylor

Decision Date01 April 1976
Docket NumberNo. 5,5
PartiesCharles PITTMAN, next friend of Paul Pittman, a minor and Charles Pittman, Individually, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. The CITY OF TAYLOR, et al., Defendants-Appellees. ,
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Ripple & Chambers, P.C., by Sanford L. Steiner, Detroit, for plaintiffs-appellants.

Michigan Trial Lawyers Ass'n, Lansing, by Lopatin, Miller, Bindes & Freedman, Victora C. Heldman, Detroit, amicus curiae for plaintiffs-appellants.

Council of the Negligence Section, State Bar of Michigan, by Neal Bush, Kenneth M. Mogill, Detroit, for amicus curiae Council of the Negligence Section, State Bar of Michigan, in opposition to governmental immunity.

Council of the Negligence Section of the State Bar of Michigan, by Michael F. Schmidt, Detroit, for amicus curiae of the Council of the Negligence Section of the State Bar of Michigan, in favor of governmental immunity.

KAVANAGH, Chief Justice.

In Thomas v. Department of State Highways, 398 Mich. 1, 247 N.W.2d 530 (1976), released today, we examined the legislative grant of immunity to the state per 1964 P.A. 170; M.C.L.A. § 691.1401 Et seq.,; M.S.A. § 3.996(101) Et seq.

In the instant case, we are called upon to examined the common-law doctrine of state governmental immunity. We hold that the common-law doctrine of state governmental immunity is abrogated. This ruling is prospective, with the exception of the instant case and any cases now pending in which an express challenge to the common-law defense of state governmental immunity has been made and preserved.


According to plaintiffs' complaint, Paul Pittman, then a 16-year-old student in the Taylor Public Schools, was provided with chemicals by the individually named teachers to construct a rocket as a science project. On April 24, 1969, Paul began to mix the chemicals at his home. An explosion resulted and he was severely injured.

On April 20, 1972, suit was filed against the City of Taylor, the Taylor Board of Education, the individual teachers and the chemical manufacturer.

The City of Taylor moved for summary judgment arguing that the Taylor Board of Education was an agency of the state over which the city had no control, thus they could not be liable for its actions. Summary judgment for the city was granted on July 21, 1972. This order was not appealed.

The Taylor Board of Education moved for summary judgment on grounds of state governmental immunity. Summary judgment for the board was granted on July 17, 1972. It is that judgment which we are called upon to review.


Unlike Thomas, supra, which raised issues of immunity under the terms of the governmental immunity act, M.C.L.A. § 691.1401 Et seq.; M.S.A. § 3.996(101) Et seq., this case must be resolved according to common-law governmental tort immunity extant in 1969.

The governmental immunity act was originally enacted in 1964. The specific section granting immunity, 1964 P.A. 170, § 7 (M.C.L.A. § 691.1407; M.S.A. § 3.996(107)), was found to exceed the scope of the title of the act. Consequently, it was declared an unconstitutionally enacted provision under Const.1963, art. 4, § 24, Maki v. East Tawas, 385 Mich. 151, 188 N.W.2d 593 (1971), and was void from the date of its original passage. Briggs v. Campbell, Wyant & Cannon, 379 Mich. 160, 150 N.W.2d 752 (1967). The Legislature did not cure the constitutional defect until the enactment of 1970 P.A. 155, effective August 1, 1970. Thus, as appellant claims, any claim arising prior to August 1, 1970, is subject to the common-law governmental tort immunity. 1 In determining what that common law was, we see no purpose in reviewing the extensive list of cases that have followed this Court's initial attempt at abolishing governmental tort immunity and which did in fact abolish immunity for municipal corporations. 2 Williams v. Detroit, 364 Mich. 231, 111 N.W.2d 1 (1961).

We acknowledge that on April 24, 1969, the state, including school boards, enjoyed immunity from tort liability under common-law principles. Sayers v. School District No. 1, Fractional, 366 Mich. 217, 114 N.W.2d 191 (1962).

However, we are now persuaded that those principles should no longer be given effect.

An examination of the origins of common law governmental immunity in this country would show that the importation of the principle was the product of an unfortunate 'misunderstanding' 3 more appropriate to life and government in the early 19th century than to the age of pervasive governmental activity we know today.

In Michigan, the doctrine of governmental immunity was shaped in its early days by the 'experience and environment' of our esteemed forebears on the bench. In later days the courts all too often applied the outmoded forms of the past. 4 The distinction present in our case law between the immunity of the state and that of other governmental units seems particularly anachronistic in today's society.

Government 'instituted for (the) equal benefit, security and protection (of the people)' 5 must accept responsibility for misfeasance causing injury to its citizens during the course of normal governmental operations. 6 'It is plainly injust to refuse relief to persons injured by the wrongful conduct of the State. No one seems to defend that refusal as fair.' Willis v. Department of Conservation & Economic Development, 55 N.J. 534, 537--538, 264 A.2d 34, 36 (1970).

The reasons given by this Court for abolishing the common-law defense of governmental immunity for municipal corporations are equally relevant in this situation.

'The rule of governmental immunity has as legal defense only the argument that age has lent weight to the unjust whim of long-dead Kings. It is hard to say why the courts of America have adhered to this relic of absolutism so long a time after America overthrew monarchy itself! * * *

'(I)n relation to the doctrine of governmental immunity, 'the application of the rule is more harmful than helpful and results in more injustice than it prevents."

Williams v. City of Detroit, 364 Mich. 231, 258, 265, 111 N.W.2d 1, 24, 27 (1961).

The Court was faced with a related situation in Parker v. Port Huron Hospital, 361 Mich. 1, 105 N.W.2d 1 (1960), wherein we abrogated the common-law immunity of charitable institutions: 'It is our conclusion that there is today no factual justification for immunity in a case such as this, and that principles of law, logic, and intrinsic justice demand that the mantle of immunity be withdrawn.' Id. at 25, 105 N.W.2d at 13. That same analysis is appropriate to this case.

'The doctrine of governmental immunity is an historical anachronism which manifests an inefficient public policy and works injustice upon everyone concerned.' Brown v. Wichita State University, 217 Kan. 279, 297, 540 P.2d 66, 81 (1975). 7

Accordingly, we hold that the traditional common-law judge made immunity that the state and its instrumentalities heretofore enjoyed from its torts should be and it hereby is abrogated. 8

In so doing, we agree with the Supreme Court of Minnesota that

'(T)he doctrine of sovereign immunity is an exception to the fundamental concept of tort law that liability follows tortious conduct and that individuals and corporations are responsible for the acts of their employees acting in the course of their employment. We are aware of no substantial reasons, and none have been called to our attention, which support the continuation of this exception to the well-established principles of tort law. And we will certainly not retain the doctrine on the basis of stare decisis alone.

"* * * (W)hen a rule, after it has been tested by experience, has been found to be inconsistent with the sense of justice or with the social welfare, there should be less hesitation in frank avowal and full abandonment.' Cardozo, Selected Writings of Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, pp. 107, 152 (1947).

'The reasons for the creation of the state's tort immunity are now obscured. * * * Because no compelling reasons have been presented in support of its continued existence, we have concluded that the time has come for the abandonment of the rule.' Nieting v. Blondell, Minn., 235 N.W.2d 597, 601 (1975).

As we said in Williams: 'We eliminate from the case law of Michigan an ancient rule inherited from the days of absolute monarchy which has been productive of great injustice in our courts.' Williams v. City of Detroit, 364 Mich. 231, 250, 111 N.W.2d 1, 20 (1961).

The holding we announce today is prospective, with the exception of the instant case and any cases now pending in which an express challenge to the common law defense of governmental immunity had been made and preserved. See Bricker v. Green, 313 Mich. 218, 21 N.W.2d 105 (1946).

The Wayne County Circuit Court order of July 17, 1972 granting summary judgment in favor of the Taylor Board of Education is hereby vacated and this case remanded to Wayne County Circuit Court for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion.

No costs, a public question.

FITZGERALD and LEVIN, JJ., concur.

COLEMAN, Justice (dissenting).

On April 24, 1969, plaintiff Charles Pittman's son was injured by a chemical explosion in his home. The chemicals allegedly were supplied by employee-teachers of defendant Board of Education. The sole question before the Court is whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the Board of Education on the basis of governmental immunity.

We would hold that the trial court did not err.


On April 20, 1972, suit was filed against the Board of Education, the City of Taylor, the chemical manufacturer and the employees for damages of $1,100,000 plus interest and costs. The Board of Education sought summary judgment on the basis that it was a state agency and therefore immune.

The City sought summary judgment claiming that it had no control over the Board because it 'is an agency and arm of the state' and the Board was at...

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