Wade v. Department of Corrections

Decision Date24 March 1992
Docket NumberDocket No. 88656,No. 4,4
Citation439 Mich. 158,483 N.W.2d 26
PartiesGerald WADE, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, Defendant-Appellant. Calendar
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

RILEY, Justice.

We granted leave to appeal to determine whether the public building exception to governmental immunity, M.C.L. Sec. 691.1406; M.S.A. Sec. 3.996(106), 1 applies to a slip and fall injury occasioned by an accumulation of grease or oil on a hallway floor. 2 The Court of Appeals held that the exception was applicable to these facts and reversed the trial court's grant of summary disposition in the defendant's favor. 3 We disagree with the findings of the Court of Appeals majority, and hold that the transitory condition was not caused by a dangerous or defective condition of the building itself, thus the public building exception does not apply.


Plaintiff Gerald Wade was a prison inmate at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. On January 25, 1987, plaintiff slipped on some foreign substance 4 and fractured his kneecap. Plaintiff sued the State of Michigan, Department of Corrections, under the public building exception to governmental immunity 5 on the basis of the theory that it failed to repair and maintain the Lakeland facility, a public building.

In the Court of Claims, defendant moved for summary disposition pursuant to the governmental immunity statute, M.C.L. Sec. 691.1407; M.S.A. Sec. 3.996(107). 6 The court granted defendant's motion on the basis of its finding that an accumulation of grease or oil on the floor did not amount to a defect of the building itself.

The Court of Appeals reversed, finding little distinction between dangerous conditions caused by a structural defect in the floor and a floor covered with an accumulation of oil or grease. Wade v. Dep't of Corrections, 182 Mich.App. 519, 525, 453 N.W.2d 683 (1990). The majority rejected the statutory interpretation, which differentiates between risks of injury on the basis of what occasioned the risk. Id. Judge MacKenzie dissented, on the basis of her belief that the public building exception is confined to the duty of preserving the structural integrity of a public building.


Although not specified in the record, the trial court granted defendant's motion for summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(7) and (C)(8). MCR 2.116(C)(7) tests whether a claim is barred because of immunity granted by law, and requires consideration of all documentary evidence filed or submitted by the parties. MCR 2.116(G)(5); Green v. Berrien General Hosp, 437 Mich. 1, 4, n. 4, 464 N.W.2d 703 (1990). MCR 2.116(C)(8), failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint and allows consideration of only the pleadings. MCR 2.116(G)(5); Scameheorn v. Bucks, 167 Mich.App. 302, 306, 421 N.W.2d 918 (1988). Under both subrules, all well-pleaded allegations are accepted as true, and construed most favorably to the nonmoving party. Scameheorn, supra at 306, 421 N.W.2d 918; Haywood v. Fowler, 190 Mich.App. 253, 256, 475 N.W.2d 458 (1991). A court may only grant a motion pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(8) where the claims are so clearly unenforceable as a matter of law that no factual development could possibly justify recovery. Scameheorn, supra at 306, 421 N.W.2d 918.

Immunity granted by law, such as governmental immunity, pursuant to M.C.L. Sec. 691.1401 et seq.; M.S.A. Sec. 3.996(101) et seq., is an affirmative defense and requires that the defense be stated in the party's responsive pleading. MCR 2.111(F)(3)(a). Leite v. Dow Chemical Co., 439 Mich. 915, 478 N.W.2d 892 (1992). In order to survive a motion for summary disposition, the plaintiff must, however, allege facts justifying application of an exception to governmental immunity. Ross v. Consumers Power Co. (On Rehearing), 420 Mich. 567, 621, n. 34, 363 N.W.2d 641 (1984); Gibson v. Grand Rapids, 162 Mich.App. 100, 103, 412 N.W.2d 658 (1987).


In Reardon v. Dep't of Mental Health, 430 Mich. 398, 424 N.W.2d 248 (1988), this Court examined the scope of the public building exception to governmental immunity. M.C.L. Sec. 691.1406; M.S.A. Sec. 3.996(106). We held that the intent of the Legislature in enacting the public building exception was to "impose a duty to maintain safe public buildings, but not necessarily safety in public buildings." (Emphasis added.) Reardon, supra at 417, 424 N.W.2d 248. The duty to repair and maintain relates to the structural condition of the premises, and a government engaged in a governmental function is open to liability only where the injury results from a dangerous or defective condition of a building. Id. Although factually distinguishable from the instant case, the holding in Reardon delineating the public building exception is controlling.

In Reardon, a nursing student was assaulted in her dormitory. She alleged that the room, and therefore the building, was unsafe and defective because of the number of master keys in circulation among the employees. In Schafer v. Ethridge, 430 Mich. 398, 424 N.W.2d 248 (1988), the companion case of Reardon, a severely mentally retarded resident of a center for developmental disabilities was impregnated while staying in the acute care wing. The complaint alleged that the layout of the wing created a dangerous condition allowing an assault to occur.

This Court rejected the application of the public building exception to these facts on the grounds that no evidence was presented that a condition of the building contributed to the assaults or posed a danger to the plaintiffs. Reardon, supra at 417, 424 N.W.2d 248.

In Reardon, we discussed the statutory genesis of the public building exception. In response to the judicial abrogation of governmental immunity for municipalities in Williams v. Detroit, 364 Mich. 231, 111 N.W.2d 1 (1961), in 1964 the Legislature passed Public Act 170. 7 The purpose of this act was to restore governmental immunity to nonsovereign agencies, and to provide for uniform treatment of governmental entities when engaged in governmental functions. 8 See Reardon, supra 430 Mich. at 408, 424 N.W.2d 248.

Earlier constructions of the governmental immunity act by this Court indicated that with the expansion of governmental activity in recent years, services provided by governmental agencies are not essentially governmental in nature. Pichette v. Manistique Public Schools, 403 Mich. 268, 279, 269 N.W.2d 143 (1978). We then found that public policy required a narrow construction of the term "governmental function," and imposed a broad duty on the government to protect the public from injury by maintaining safe public places. Id. at 285, 269 N.W.2d 143. A "narrow" interpretation of the public building exception which limited application of the exception to the specific physical structure of the building itself was explicitly rejected. Tilford v. Wayne Co. General Hosp., 403 Mich. 293, 299, 269 N.W.2d 153 (1978). The decisions in Lockaby v. Wayne Co., 406 Mich. 65, 77, 276 N.W.2d 1 (1979), and Bush v. Oscoda Area Schools, 405 Mich. 716, 731, 275 N.W.2d 268 (1979), also reflect narrow interpretations of governmental function and governmental immunity. In Bush, this Court rejected the defendant's contention that the injury must result from dangerous or defective conditions caused by inadequate or negligent repairs or maintenance, and found that "a building may be dangerous or defective because of improper design, faulty construction or the absence of safety devices." Id. at 730, 275 N.W.2d 268.

In Ross, supra, the Court reconsidered the scope of the governmental immunity statute. Our purpose in interpreting the immunity act was to create a cohesive, uniform, and workable set of rules to define an injured party's rights, and the governmental entity's liability. Id. 420 Mich. at 596, 363 N.W.2d 641. We concluded that the intent of the act was to bring into uniformity the liability for state and nonsovereign governmental agencies. Id. at 608, 363 N.W.2d 641.

The decision in Ross settled prior inconsistencies in governmental immunity jurisprudence by finding that the heart of the act, Sec. 7, provides for broad immunity from tort liability for governmental agencies engaged in governmental functions. Ross, supra at 595, 363 N.W.2d 641. The language of Sec. 7 is "in the broadest possible language," and the term "governmental function" was likewise to be construed broadly. Id. at 618, 363 N.W.2d 641. From this broad grant of immunity, the Court recognized four narrow statutory exceptions, including the public building exception. 9 The more recent decision in Hyde v. Univ. of Michigan Bd. of Regents, 426 Mich. 223, 245, 393 N.W.2d 847 (1986), also recognized that exceptions to governmental immunity are to be narrowly construed. 10

Subsequent Court of Appeals decisions, however, continued to interpret the public building exception broadly. In Davis v. Detroit, 149 Mich.App. 249, 262, 386 N.W.2d 169 (1986), the Court found that the Legislature intended to impose a "broad duty" on governmental agencies to maintain safe buildings. And, in Ray v. Dep't of Social Services, 156 Mich.App. 55, 63, 401 N.W.2d 307 (1986), the Court discussed the broad application of the public building exception, stating that "it was the intent of the Legislature to apply the same standard of care and duty as would be applied to a department store or supermarket or a privately owned place of business open to the public." The only differences between private tort liability and that of governmental agencies noted by...

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