June 20, 2022
The Michigan Court of Appeals recently issued an unpublished decision in the matter of Hill v Nationwide et al. (May 26, 2022 No. 355602) which provides analysis of “comparative fault” and the “sudden-emergency doctrine” in regard to a bodily injury claim arising out of a motor vehicle accident. In this case, the facts were largely not in dispute; the accident was caught on Defendant’s dash-cam.
The accident in question took place on January 9, 2019 on Westbound I-96 in Wayne County, during a snow storm. Plaintiff, Hill, was driving a sedan in the middle lane. Defendant, Crisman, was operating a loaded semi-tractor in the far right lane. Hill’s vehicle passed Crisman’s and ultimately Hill lost control and the vehicle spun out toward the dividing concrete barrier. Hill’s vehicle struck the concrete barrier and briefly disappeared from view in a cloud of snow, it reemerged from the cloud going in reverse across the highway. Hill’s vehicle went across all three lanes of traffic into the right lane where Crisman’s tractor was driving, causing a collision.
Hill sued Crisman (as well as the owner of the tractor and the company that employed Crisman) for negligence in operating the semi-tractor trailer, owner’s liability and negligent hiring. Ultimately, the trial court found a question of fact as to the comparative negligence between Hill and Crisman and denied Defendants’ Motions for Summary Disposition on the issues of comparative fault, owner’s liability and negligent hiring. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed.
Under the Michigan No-Fault Act, a party is not allowed to recover tort damages if they are found to be more than 50% at fault for the accident. Hill was driving his vehicle over the posted speed limit despite the icy road conditions. Hill’s own accident reconstructionist concluded that Hill over corrected in response to the slippery road conditions and admitted that had Hill maintained control of the vehicle the accident would not have occurred. Hill’s expert concluded that Crisman engaged the engine break very soon after Hill began to lose control. The expert agreed that Crisman’s reduction in speed and maintaining his lane of travel during the incident were reasonable under the circumstances. Despite all of this, Plaintiff’s expert asserted that the accident could have been avoided had Crisman immediately engaged his service breaks; Crisman’s vehicle would have come to a stop 4 feet from where the collision occurred. The Court of Appeals noted that, even if this opinion were taken to be true, Hill still needed to present evidence that Crisman was more at fault than he. The Court held that the evidence did not give rise to a question of fact and that “no reasonable juror could conclude that Hill was less than 50% at fault for the accident.”
The Court of Appeals discussed the arguments surrounding the “sudden-emergency” doctrine as well, even though the discussion of comparative fault was dispositive. Hill asserted that the incident began when Hill’s vehicle started to lose control, 11 seconds before the collision, giving Crisman time to make the appropriate decision to avert the crash (using service breaks). Crisman asserted that the sudden emergency occurred when Hill’s vehicle entered Crisman’s lane 2 seconds before the collision. The Court held that whether the “sudden-emergency” started 11 seconds before the collision, or 2 seconds, it was undisputed that Crisman was met with a “sudden emergency” based upon Hill’s own expert’s opinion as well as the fact that a semi-tractor cannot come to a complete stop, on an expressway, during a snow storm, if there is a sudden and emergent need to do so. Crisman could not be found negligent even if he failed to adopt what subsequently and upon reflection may have appeared to have been a better method.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, and remanded for entry of an order granting summary disposition in favor of Crisman. Having found Crisman was not, and could not be deemed, negligent, the Court of Appeals found summary disposition in favor of Capacity and LAM, as the owner of the truck and Crisman’s employer, to be appropriate as well.
This unpublished opinion offers a fact heavy example of the “sudden-emergency” analysis. The Court’s reasoning that a sudden-emergency can last 11 seconds potentially opens a wider swath of cases that can be defended under the doctrine. Further, the Court’s analysis of comparative fault resulted in a finding that “no reasonable juror…” could conclude otherwise, rebuking the decision of the trial court to find a question of fact that did not exist. As defense counsel, it is too common to have a motion denied for a question of fact that does not reasonably exist; this case may be persuasive ammunition for such motions, and support for appeals from decisions that find questions of fact where none logically reside.