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140493 - Plunkett v Department of Transportation

Jerome Plunkett, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Holly Marie Plunkett,
Victor S. Valenti
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
(Ingham – Giddings, J.)
Department of Transportation,
John P. Mack


​Holly Marie Plunkett was killed after she lost control of her vehicle while driving on southbound US-127 and struck a tree. According to the police report, “it was raining hard at the time, [and] there was some standing water in the roadway where the vehicle tires traveled.” Her husband, Jerome Plunkett, sued the Michigan Department of Transportation, alleging that Holly Plunkett “suddenly and unexpectedly lost control of her vehicle due to the dangerous and defective conditions which existed on/at the actual physical structure of the roadbed surface of the highway at issue . . . .” The lawsuit further alleged that, as a direct and proximate result of MDOT’s failure to maintain the highway in reasonable repair and in a condition reasonable safe and fit for travel, defects in the roadway allowed rainfall to accumulate, causing Holly Plunkett’s van to hydroplane. MDOT filed a motion for summary disposition, arguing, among other things, that it was entitled to governmental immunity under MCL 691.1402. The governmental immunity act provides broad immunity from tort liability to governmental agencies whenever they are engaged in the exercise or discharge of a governmental function. One exception to this rule is for claims arising from an unsafe highway, MCL 691.1402(1). The highway exception to governmental immunity provides that “each governmental agency having jurisdiction over a highway shall maintain the highway in reasonable repair so that it is reasonably safe and convenient for public travel. A person who sustains bodily injury or damage to his or her property by reason of failure of a governmental agency to keep a highway under its jurisdiction in reasonable repair and in a condition reasonably safe and fit for travel may recover damages suffered by him or her from the governmental agency.”


The trial court denied MDOT’s motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed in a published per curiam opinion. The panel concluded that Plunkett’s claim could be broken down into two parts: (1) that a design defect (relating to the cross-slope of the highway) allowed water to collect on the roadbed and did not adequately allow water to drain off the roadbed; and (2) that the rutting defects in the road, along with the pooled water, caused the accident. The Court of Appeals held that the first aspect of Plunkett’s claim should have been dismissed, because MDOT is immune from liability for claims related to the construction and design of a highway, including making sure that the highway has a specific geometry or cross-slope. The second aspect of Plunkett’s claim should also be dismissed, the panel explained, because a defect that simply causes the accumulation of ice, snow, or water is not sufficient to sustain an action under the highway exception, citing Haliw v City of Sterling Heights, 464 Mich 297, 308 (2001). The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court for entry of an order granting the city’s motion for summary disposition. Plunkett appeals.