Plaintiffs were employees of Caro Regional Center who were attacked by a patient. 

         After being found not guilty by reason of insanity at a criminal trial on another matter, the patient was admitted to Caro  in December 2003.  While at Caro, the patient showed progress and was given a grounds pass which gave him unsupervised access to the grounds at Caro  for 15-minute periods.  On June 22, 2004, the defendant, a locum tenens (i.e., temporary) psychiatrist at Caro, examined the patient so he could give testimony at an upcoming probate court hearing regarding the patient.  That evening, the patient used his grounds pass and disappeared from Caro.  Three days later, he reappeared at the Caro Learning Center nearby, where he  attacked the plaintiffs with a hammer and his fists, severely injuring them.  He was apprehended three days later and was found guilty but mentally ill of assault with intent to commit murder, MCL 750.83.

          In a civil lawsuit against defendant-psychiatrist, the trial court found defendant to be entitled to governmental immunity under MCL 691.1407(2), and thus not liable for the plaintiffs’ injuries.  The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the psychiatrist was not an employee of Caro.  The Court of Appeals disagreed with the plaintiffs and affirmed the dismissal of the psychiatrist. 

         The Court of Appeals noted that under the Governmental Immunity Act, MCL 691.1407(2), employees of a governmental agency are immune from tort liability  for injuries to persons if: 1) the employee is acting within the scope of his authority; 2) the governmental agency is engaged in a governmental function; and 3) the employee’s actions are not grossly negligent.  Here, the psychiatrist was called an “independent contractor.”  However, this is not dispositive.  Whether he is an employee for purposes of the Act and can be subject to tort liability depends on application of the “economic reality” test.  The following four factors are considered:  1) the governmental unit’s control of the worker’s duties; 2) payment of wages; 3) right to hire, fire, and discipline, and 4)performance of the duties as an integral part of the employer’s business towards the accomplishment of a common goal.   Under this test, the trial court correctly found that the defendant-psychiatrist was an employee of Caro.  The evidence showed that the defendant’s supervisors at Caro had the right to control the defendant’s duties.  They had the right to discipline and fire him.  He was considered part of the staff at Caro.  He was required to abide by the bylaws in place for staff members.  His supervisor testified that his duties were “more or less” the same as other staff psychiatrists.  They could take corrective action against him. 

        Under the totality of the circumstances, the trial court correctly concluded that the defendant was an employee entitled to governmental immunity.

 What This Means For Injured Plaintiffs:  If you are injured by the actions of a governmental worker, it is not the employee’s title that determines whether or not he is immune from suit but rather the four factors in the economic reality test.  This makes it more likely that the employee will be found to be immune.

You can read the entire opinion here.

Authored by Barbara A. Assendelft