February 15, 2018
Few areas are more important to defending municipal parties within the state of Michigan than the issue of governmental immunity. State law provides a broad shield of immunity for local municipalities to defend against tort claims. These statutory enactments restrict plaintiffs to a limited number of claims and often require that plaintiffs provide a notice of claim to municipalities prior to bringing suit.
In the recent unpublished decision, Wigfall v. City of Detroit (Docket No. 333448, 11/7/17), the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed the topic of governmental immunity and, specifically, whether a plaintiff had complied with such notice requirements to avoid the City’s governmental immunity. Since the plaintiff had asserted his claim under the “highway exception” to the City’s immunity, he was required to provide notice of his claim under MCL 691.1404 prior to filing suit.
The Wigfall case arose out of a particularly unfortunate set of circumstances. Dwayne Wigfall alleged that while riding his motorcycle, he sustained personal injuries after his motorcycle struck a pothole in the roadway. Roughly two months after his fall, Mr. Wigfall sent notice of his injury and the defect to the City’s claims division. Additional information was subsequently requested by the department. However, Mr. Wigfall never made an effort to contact the mayor, city clerk, or city attorney. Plaintiff subsequently filed suit and the City moved for summary disposition.
In support of its dispositive motion, the City argued that Mr. Wigfall had failed to provide the statutorily required notice under MCL 691.1404. This provision requires a plaintiff seeking “recovery for injuries sustained by reason of any defective highway” to serve notice on the governmental agency of the occurrence of the injury and the defect. MCL 691.1404(1). Moreover, this portion of the statute also requires a plaintiff to: (1) specify the exact location and nature of the defect; (2) the injury sustained; and (3) the names of the witnesses known at the time by the claimant. Such notice must be served upon an individual who may be lawfully served with “civil process” directed against the governmental agency. The City argued that Mr. Wigfall had failed to provide such notice because he had failed to serve an individual who could be lawfully served with civil process, i.e. the mayor, the city clerk, or the city attorney.
The trial court disagreed with the City’s contention and denied its motion for summary disposition. The court opined that the plaintiff substantially complied with the statutory notice provision and that the City was equitably estopped from asserting that notice was insufficient because it had information posted on its website directing individuals to direct notice of claims to its claims department. The City appealed.
The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the trial court’s conclusion, finding that Mr. Wigfall had failed to comply with the statutory notice requirement. The Court based its holding on MCL 691.1404(2), finding that substantial compliance was insufficient to meet this requirement. Moreover, the Court also rejected the trial court’s equitable estoppel argument. Since the City lacked the ability to change or alter the law with regard to such notice requirements, providing information on its website had no bearing on the issue.
There is little debating the significance of the findings in the Wigfall case. Not only did the Court of Appeals bar the plaintiff’s claim, but it specifically rejected the contention that a plaintiff could substantially comply with MCL 691.1404’s notice requirements by serving a claims division. This should assist municipalities in asserting that plaintiffs have provided inadequate notice to avoid governmental immunity.