Plaintiff was at an annual  family party at Camp Dearborn, a park run by the County of Oakland.  After socialization, the group boarded a hayride. Defendant was the driver of the hayride.  Defendant-driver drove through Camp Dearborn along his normal route while weaving and doing figure eights.   This was part of the attraction of the hayride; the swerving and weaving made it more exciting than typical  hayrides, and the guests were allowed to drink alcohol and throw hay at each other.   In this hayride, plaintiff, who was sitting at the edge of the wagon, fell out and sustained serious injury after the driver swerved  to the right and then whipped the wheel sharply to the left.  She filed suit against the driver of the tractor, alleging that his driving was grossly negligent.   An allegation of gross negligence is necessary to avoid the defense of governmental immunity under MCL 691.1407.  The Court of Appeals dismissed the plaintiff’s case, holding that the evidence did not show that the driver’s conduct was grossly negligent.  The Court of Appeals held that his conduct was not “so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury results”, because he drove the wagon how the guests expected, he had no prior accidents while driving a hayride, and there was no evidence that he was aware of other accidents occuring from driving in this manner.   The plaintiff’s case was dismissed.

What This Means For Injured Persons:

Proving gross negligence to avoid governmental immunity is difficult.  You must show almost a willful disregard of precautions or measures to attend to safety and a singular disregard for substantial risks.   You must basically convince the court that, if  an objective observer watched the actor, he could reasonably conclude that the actor simply did not care about the safety or welfare of the people in his charge.   This is a hard burden.  In the case of rides or similar type attractions such as the hayride in this case  conducted by a governmental unit, it is important that if you feel the ride is dangerous, you must tell the operator of the ride. It could save your case. 

You can read this opinion here.

Authored by Barbara A. Assendelft