Reardon v. Department of Mental Health, Docket Nos. 80362

CourtSupreme Court of Michigan
Writing for the CourtRILEY; GRIFFIN; Archer
Citation424 N.W.2d 248,430 Mich. 398
PartiesClaudette Marie REARDON, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH, and State of Michigan, Defendants-Appellants. Deloris G. SCHAFER, Guardian of Linda Kay Schafer, a Mentally Retarded Person; and Deloris G. Schafer, as Next Friend of Toby Schafer, a Minor, Plaintiffs- Appellants, v. David A. ETHRIDGE and Isak Berker, Defendants, and State of Michigan, Michigan State Department of Mental Health, and Oakdale Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities, Jointly and Severally, Defendants-Appellees.
Docket NumberDocket Nos. 80362,80549
Decision Date16 May 1988

Page 248

424 N.W.2d 248
430 Mich. 398
Claudette Marie REARDON, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Deloris G. SCHAFER, Guardian of Linda Kay Schafer, a
Mentally Retarded Person; and Deloris G. Schafer,
as Next Friend of Toby Schafer, a Minor,
Plaintiffs- Appellants,
David A. ETHRIDGE and Isak Berker, Defendants,
State of Michigan, Michigan State Department of Mental
Health, and Oakdale Regional Center for
Developmental Disabilities, Jointly and
Severally, Defendants-Appellees.
Docket Nos. 80362, 80549.
Supreme Court of Michigan.
Argued Jan. 6, 1988.
Decided May 16, 1988.

Page 249

[430 Mich. 399] Steven E. Ford, Newberry, for Reardon.

Frank J. Kelley, Atty. Gen., Louis J. [430 Mich. 400] Caruso, Sol. Gen., George L. McCargar, Mark S. Meadows, Asst. Attys. Gen., Thomas R. Wheeker, Asst. Atty. Gen., Mental Health Div., Lansing, for Dept. of Mental Health, and State of Mich., et al.

John D. Ketelhut, Acting General Counsel, Ann Arbor, for amici curiae Regents of University of Michigan, et al.

Libner, VanLeuven & Kortering, P.C., John A. Braden, Muskegon, amicus curiae for Michigan Trial Lawyers Ass'n.

Richard D. Toth, Sommers, Schwartz, Silver & Schwartz, P.C., Southfield, for Schafer.

Andrew H. Wisti, Hancock, for Velmer.

Ronald D. Keefe, Marquette, for Baraga Area Schools.


RILEY, Chief Justice.

The issue in these consolidated cases is whether the public building exception to governmental immunity is applicable to the facts presented. We are persuaded that the Legislature intended the building exception to apply where the injury is occasioned by a physical defect or dangerous condition of the building itself. As neither case involved an injury caused by the physical condition of the building, we hold that the public building exception is inapplicable to both cases.


Reardon v. Mental Health Department

In April, 1980, plaintiff, a nursing student, attended Sault College of Applied Arts and Technology in Canada. At that time, plaintiff was residing at the Newberry Regional Mental Health Center (MHC) in Newberry, Michigan. Through an agreement between her school and MHC, plaintiff was in the process of completing a four-month practical training program. MHC provided a dormitory-like residence where the students lived while they were in the program. The residence, called the employee home, was operated by MHC.

Plaintiff's room in the employee home was secured by two locks. The first was key operated and locked automatically when the door was closed. The second was a chain lock. The outside doors of the building were not locked.

Page 250

On April 17, 1980, plaintiff was asleep, alone in her room. Before going to bed, she had engaged the chain lock. Plaintiff awoke to find Arthur Green, an employee of MHC, in her room. Green, who had been one of plaintiff's instructors, was lying on the floor touching plaintiff's leg. Green climbed into plaintiff's bed and for approximately one-half hour proceeded to touch plaintiff's breasts and genital region. Green attempted, but failed to achieve, sexual intercourse.

Understandably upset about the assault, plaintiff did not complete her training at MHC. She reported the incident to an instructor and the police. Green was apprehended and eventually convicted of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. M.C.L. Sec. 750.520e; M.S.A. Sec. 28.788(5).

On September 2, 1980, plaintiff filed suit in the Court of Claims, naming as defendants the State of Michigan and Michigan Department of Mental [430 Mich. 402] Health, which operated MHC. The gravamen of her complaint was that her room was unsafe because of the number of master keys in circulation among MHC employees which could open her door.

Defendant moved for summary disposition pursuant to GCR 1963, 117.2(1), now MCR 2.116(C), arguing that plaintiff's claim was barred by governmental immunity. The trial court denied that motion.

Following a brief trial, the judge determined that plaintiff had established that she was injured by a dangerous or defective condition of a public building, and, thus, the public building exception was applicable.

Evidence revealed that MHC had issued to its staff eighteen master keys, any of which could unlock plaintiff's door. Apparently, Green had used a duplicate master key to enter plaintiff's room. The record does not indicate how Green was able to obtain his duplicate key.

The trial court reasoned that the lack of a device to secure a room where someone would be sleeping renders that room dangerous or defective. Here, because of the eighteen master keys in circulation among the staff, plaintiff's security was not assured. Further, had plaintiff been warned about the master keys, the judge determined that she could have taken measures to secure the room herself.

The trial court also held that the chain lock itself was insufficient, as was proven in this case, because the chain was "easily defeated." Thus, the chain was actually counterproductive because it created in plaintiff a false sense of security. Therefore, the court concluded that the absence of a secure locking system or a warning to plaintiff rendered the room dangerous, and awarded plaintiff $500,000 in damages.

[430 Mich. 403] Defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed:

"The existence of eighteen master keys circulated in such a manner as to allow duplication of keys and access to student rooms by unauthorized and dangerous persons could certainly create a dangerous condition of that building, and particularly of plaintiff's room and door. This was, after all, a dormitory on the grounds of a mental health center. The use of a chain lock that could be easily broken without waking a sleeping occupant could also create a dangerous condition. If it was insufficient to provide security, the chain lock could also be viewed as defective." Reardon v. Mental Health Dep't, 157 Mich.App. 505, 511, 403 N.W.2d 582 (1987).

Defendant appealed, and we granted leave, limited to the question of the applicability of the public building exception. 428 Mich. 910, 409 N.W.2d 484 (1987).

Schafer v. Ethridge

In November, 1977, Linda Kay Schafer was a resident of Oakdale Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities in Lapeer. Linda had lived at Oakdale since being admitted in 1964.

While physiologically normal, Linda is profoundly mentally retarded. People who are profoundly retarded suffer from the most severe of handicaps in the continuum of developmental disabilities. Linda has approximately the mental capacity of a two-year-old infant. She is not able to feed

Page 251

herself or walk without assistance. Linda can make noises, but has no vocabulary.

Oakdale, operated by the Michigan Department of Mental Health, provides its patients with acute medical care when necessary. When these services are required, the patients are taken to a medical [430 Mich. 404] ward called 2-West, which is on the second floor of a three-story building. On November 2, 1977, Linda was suffering from an infection of her urinary tract and was taken to 2-West, where she stayed until December 16, 1977.

Following her stay on 2-West, Linda returned to her dormitory. In April, 1978, the Oakdale staff discovered that Linda was pregnant. Because of the timing of Linda's menstrual cycle and the results of two ultrasound tests, it was determined that Linda was impregnated during her stay at 2-West. Defendant does not dispute this determination. 1 On August 11, 1978, Linda gave birth to her son, Toby Schafer.

Linda's mother, Deloris Schafer, is her legal guardian, as well as next friend of Toby Schafer. Mrs. Schafer brought an action in the Court of Claims on behalf of Linda and Toby, naming the State of Michigan, Department of Mental Health, and the Oakdale Center as defendants. A suit against individual defendants was consolidated with the action against the state. Plaintiff sought damages for the sexual assault on Linda, her pain and suffering during pregnancy, and the past and future cost of raising Toby.

In the portion of plaintiff's complaint relevant to this appeal, she alleged that Linda became pregnant due to the dangerous and defective condition of 2-West. In order to understand plaintiff's allegation, a brief description of 2-West is required. The Court of Appeals described the ward as follows:

"2-West is a room approximately forty feet by forty feet in area; with a nursing station to the left of the ward's corridor entry. The nursing station is separated from the ward by a desk-high wall with [430 Mich. 405] a glass partition extending to the ceiling. In the center of the ward there are two fifteen to twenty-inch wide pillars placed about the same width apart as the corridor. A three-foot-high wall runs from the right pillar to the right side wall. There are no curtains over this partition, but there are curtains running along each side of the corridor which could be drawn, and portable screens could be used to enclose a patient's bed. A door is located in about the middle of the wall opposite the nursing station opening into a stairway which leads to a clinic below and a pediatric and chronic care ward above. The stairway door is kept unlocked and can be opened at any time, although it is not used for normal traffic.

"The ward was occupied by both male and female patients in November, 1977, with the male patients assigned to beds between the entrance to the ward and the half-wall partition, and the female patients assigned to beds on the opposite side of the partition. Linda's bed was located on the wall opposite the nursing station, near the stairwell. Seriously ill patients were assigned to beds directly in front of the nursing station. At night the overhead lights were turned off. The ward was illuminated by subdued nightlights at the base of the walls and desk lamps at the nursing station." Schafer v. Ethridge, 158...

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