Scheurman v. Department of Transp.

Decision Date07 May 1990
Docket Number82567,Docket Nos. 81739
Citation456 N.W.2d 66,434 Mich. 619
PartiesCatherine SCHEURMAN, Personal Representative of the Estate of Geraldine Rogocki, Deceased, and Catherine Scheurman, Individually, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, Defendant-Appellant. Lisa Marie PROKOP, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. WAYNE COUNTY BOARD OF ROAD COMMISSIONERS, Defendant-Appellee. 434 Mich. 619, 456 N.W.2d 66
CourtMichigan Supreme Court
OPINION

RILEY, Chief Justice.

We granted leave to appeal in these two cases, consolidated for purposes of this appeal, to decide whether the highway exception 1 to governmental immunity 2 imposes upon the state or the counties the duty to: (1) install street lighting, and (2) remove, or cause to be removed, vegetation growing on private property which obstructs the view of motorists approaching an intersection.

With regard to the state and the counties, the liability created by the highway exception statute extends "only to the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel and shall not include sidewalks, crosswalks or any other installation outside of [sic] the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel." M.C.L. Sec. 691.1402; M.S.A. Sec. 3.996(102). We conclude that the above quoted language refers only to the traveled portion, paved or unpaved, of the roadbed actually designed for public vehicular travel. We conclude, further, that neither street lighting nor vegetation growing on private property adjacent to a road can be classified as being part of the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel. Therefore, we hold that Sec. 2 is inapplicable to the Department of Transportation and the Wayne County Road Commission. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals in Scheurman and affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals in Prokop.

I. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
A. Scheurman v. Department of Transportation

On May 15, 1983, at approximately 10:15 p.m., the plaintiff's decedent, Geraldine Rogocki, was killed when she was struck by a car as she attempted to cross Eight Mile Road. While most of Eight Mile Road has streetlights, that part of the highway where the accident occurred is not illuminated. At the accident scene, Eight Mile Road is a state trunk line, M-102, located in the City of Detroit.

Although M-102 is a state trunk line, the City of Detroit has installed all of the street lighting along that part of the highway within its city limits. 3 Furthermore, Detroit owns all the streetlights and poles along M-102 and pays for the electricity used by the lights. 4 However, the city must get approval from the Department of Transportation before it can install streetlights along state trunk lines. 5

The plaintiff sued in the Court of Claims, complaining that the lack of adequate street lighting along Eight Mile Road constituted a defect in the road for which the Department of Transportation should be held liable.

After extended discovery, on May 1, 1986, the court held an evidentiary hearing, and on June 20, 1986, granted summary disposition in favor of the defendant. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Court of Claims, holding that street lighting "would be an integral part of the improved portion of the highway...." 6 The defendant sought leave to appeal, which we granted on April 7, 1989. 7

B. Prokop v. Wayne County Road Commission

On July 14, 1982, plaintiff, Lisa Marie Prokop, was riding her bicycle in a westerly direction on the sidewalk along Schoolcraft Road, a state trunk line. Schoolcraft comes to a "T-type" intersection with Columbia Street, a county road. At the southeast corner of the intersection, there was a six-foot hedge growing on private property. As the plaintiff approached the Columbia Street intersection, the traffic light displayed green, and she proceeded into the intersection. 8

At the same time, a van traveling northbound on Columbia Street approached the Schoolcraft intersection. As the plaintiff was crossing Columbia Street, the van began to turn east onto Schoolcraft and struck the plaintiff, causing her injury. The visibility of both the plaintiff and the driver of the van was obstructed by the hedge to the extent that neither one saw the other until it was too late to avoid the collision.

The plaintiff sued the Wayne County Road Commission, alleging that it failed to keep Columbia Street in a condition reasonably safe for travel by allowing the hedge to exist, thus obscuring the vision of traffic approaching the intersection. 9 On July 30, 1986, the circuit court granted the defendant's motion for summary disposition. The Court of Appeals agreed that the road commission had no duty to trim, or cause the property owner to trim, the hedge. Accordingly, it affirmed the decision of the circuit court. 10 The plaintiff sought leave to appeal, which we granted on April 7, 1989. 11

II. ANALYSIS
A

We begin our analysis by revisiting over two decades of Michigan case law and legislative history on the matter of governmental immunity. In Williams v. Detroit, 364 Mich. 231, 111 N.W.2d 1 (1961), this Court abolished common-law governmental immunity. 12 Responding to the Williams decision, the Legislature enacted the governmental immunity negligence act in 1964. 13 However, Sec. 7 14 was found to exceed the scope of the title of the act and was declared an unconstitutionally enacted provision. Maki v. East Tawas, 385 Mich. 151, 188 N.W.2d 593 (1971). This infirmity was corrected by the Legislature when it enacted 1970 P.A. 155, Sec. 7(1), which granted immunity from tort liability to all governmental agencies when engaged in governmental functions. With the legislative decree of immunity on the books, this Court abrogated common-law sovereign immunity in Pittman v. City of Taylor, 398 Mich. 41, 247 N.W.2d 512 (1976). Finally, in McCummings v. Hurley Medical Ctr., 433 Mich. 404, 411, 446 N.W.2d 114 (1989), we observed that the current statute grants immunity only under circumstances defined by the Legislature, and that sovereign or governmental immunity is not a " 'characteristic of government.' "

In recent years, this Court has sought to interpret the current immunity statute and its exceptions in a manner consistent with the intent of the Legislature. In doing so, we have consistently held that the immunity conferred upon governmental agencies is a " 'broad grant of immunity' with 'four narrowly drawn statutory exceptions.' " 15 Ross v. Consumers Power Co. (On Rehearing ), 420 Mich. 567, 618, 363 N.W.2d 641 (1984) (Brickley, J., participating). The above quoted language is cited with approval in Reardon v. Dep't of Mental Health, 430 Mich. 398, 411, 424 N.W.2d 248 (1988) (Brickley, J., participating), and also in Hadfield v. Oakland Co. Drain Comm'r, 430 Mich. 139, 146, 422 N.W.2d 205 (1988). 16

Thus, we again apply the rule of strict statutory construction when interpreting an exception to the immunity act. Reardon, Hadfield, and Ross, supra. See also 3 Sands, Sutherland Statutory Construction (4th ed.), Sec. 62.01, p. 113. 17 It is against this backdrop that we turn to the statutory exception in question. 18

B

The cases before us today center on the highway exception statute, M.C.L. Sec. 691.1402; M.S.A. Sec. 3.996(102). The origin of the statute is the enactment of 1879 P.A. 244, 1 How.Stat. 1442, which imposed liability upon municipalities "in favor of any person 'sustaining bodily injury upon any of the public highways or streets in the state, by reason of neglect to keep such public highways or streets, and all bridges, cross-walks and culverts on the same in good repair, and in a condition reasonably safe and fit for travel....' " Roy v. Dep't of Transportation, 428 Mich. 330, 336-337, 408 N.W.2d 783 (1987). With the passage of 1887 P.A. 264, 3 How.Stat. 1446c, the Legislature amended the statute and expanded its scope of liability to include sidewalks. Id. at 337, 408 N.W.2d 783.

However, when the Legislature codified governmental immunity in 1964, it specifically reduced the purview of the highway exception statute. Section 2 of the governmental immunity act expressly excludes the state and the counties from liability for "sidewalks, crosswalks or any other installation outside of [sic] the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel." M.C.L. Sec. 691.1402; M.S.A. Sec. 3.996(102). Furthermore, the duty of the state and the counties created under Sec. 2, "shall extend only to the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel...."

19

The relevant portion of Sec. 2 provides:

"Each governmental agency having jurisdiction over any highway shall maintain the highway in reasonable repair so that it is reasonably safe and convenient for public travel.... The duty of the state and the county road commissions to repair and maintain highways, and the liability therefor, shall extend only to the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel and shall not include sidewalks, crosswalks or any other installation outside of the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel."

The highway exception waives the absolute immunity of governmental units with regard to defective highways under their jurisdiction. As discussed above in part II(A), we regard Sec. 2 as a narrowly drawn exception to...

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