After several years of litigation, a lawsuit against the Road Commission for Oakland County (RCOC) has been dismissed by the Michigan Supreme Court, which held that the agency can’t be sued over loose gravel that resulted in a serious motorcycle accident in White Lake Township.
“The Supreme Court took this case for review so it defines the issue if there is a case in the future that’s similar. Now it will serve as a guiding precedent and that will be true all over the state, so from our perspective it has been an important case decided by the Supreme Court,” said RCOC Attorney Paula Reeves.
Joseph Paletta, 52, filed a lawsuit against the RCOC in 2008 stating that while riding his motorcycle northbound on Union Lake Road near Glasgow Drive, just south of Elizabeth Lake Road, he lost control of his bike after striking a patch of loose gravel in the travel portion of the road. He alleged that the RCOC created the hazard by improperly scraping the road’s gravel shoulders and failing to sweep the debris from the road in accordance with industry standards.
Paletta’s attorney, Glenn Oliver, said his client, “hit the gravel, his back tire spun out, he went head-over-heels and ended up in the ditch” during the August 2006 accident. He said Paletta tore a rotator cuff in his shoulder, fractured bones in his left leg, suffered a herniated disc requiring surgery, and suffered numerous other broken bones and dislocations.
“He just had his fourth surgery in March — it’s hard to explain to my client,” Oliver said of the court decision. “It’s a political decision by John Engler appointees who ruled in favor of big business instead of individuals.”
Two courts previously found the RCOC could be sued in the case since it was a road commission crew that had deposited the gravel in the roadway. The road commission had argued that Paletta’s attorneys couldn’t establish that the RCOC had “actual or constructive notice of the condition” of the roadway to be held legally responsible for the accident. The RCOC also argued that “the presence of gravel on a roadway is not a ‘defect’ and does not make a roadway unreasonably unsafe for public travel,” according to a Michigan Court of Appeals opinion last July.
“Basically the law states that a defect must be in the traveled portion of the road and the higher courts interpretation is that it must be in the road bed itself and the gravel was simply a dusting on the surface of the road that you would see anywhere on a daily basis,” Reeves explained.
Government agencies are protected under the law to mitigate frivolous lawsuits that cost the taxpayers money.
“According to long-standing Michigan law, a government entity is immune from tort liability unless there’s an exception and it’s narrowly construed,” Reeves said. “Government immunity has to do with taxpayers and if they want them to pay for lawsuit upon lawsuit that can cost between $40,000 to $150,000 whether they win or lose.”
“We just wanted our shot to present the case to a jury and didn’t get it because of government immunity,” Oliver said.
Michigan law established that if snow and ice are on a roadway, the RCOC is not liable for any damages. Subsequently the Supreme Court last week issued an opinion stating under Michigan Law the agency is not culpable in this incident since RCOC is responsible for keeping the roadway in “reasonable repair,” and loose gravel on a roadway does not fall under this definition.
“The courts took this logic and extended the law to apply to gravel,” Reeves noted.