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140937 - Duffy v DNR

Beverly Duffy,
William G. Boyer, Jr.
Carl J. Marlinga
(Appeal from Ct of Appeal)
(Ct of Claims – Collette, W.)
Department of Natural Resources and State of Michigan,
Ann M. Sherman


​Beverly Duffy, her husband, and some friends were riding their ATVs on a forest road commonly known as the Little Manistee Trail. Duffy’s ATV ran over some exposed wooden boards that had been partially buried underground on the traveled portion of the road, causing the ATV to bounce into the air; Duffy was thrown from the vehicle and suffered spinal injuries and paralysis.

The trail is designated as an Off Road Vehicle route, which means that any motor vehicle licensed by the Secretary of State can be operated on the trail, which is owned by the state of Michigan. By statute, the DNR is obligated to maintain a recreation system for off-road vehicles and to develop a comprehensive plan for the management and maintenance of ORV routes and trails. The state funds the ORV Trail Improvement Fund; the DNR provide grants from the fund to local governments, non-profit agencies, and individuals to maintain trails, routes, and forest roads. The Little Manistee Trail is maintained by the Irons Area Tourists Association, a non-profit corporation, which receives public funds through a DNR grant.

Duffy sued the DNR and state of Michigan, arguing that they were liable for her injuries. She contended that governmental immunity did not shield the defendants from suit because the Governmental Tort Liability Act creates an exception to governmental immunity for highways. The GTLA states in part that the governmental entity having jurisdiction over a highway to “maintain the highway in reasonable repair so that it is reasonably safe and convenient for public travel (MCL 691.1402(1)).” MCL 691.1401(e) defines “highway” as “a public highway, road, or street that is open for public travel and includes bridges, sidewalks, trailways, crosswalks, and culverts on the highway. The term highway does not include alleys, trees, and utility poles.” MCL 691.1402(1) also limits the liability of the state and county road commissions; the statute provides that “The duty of the state and the county road commissions to repair and maintain highways, and the liability for that duty, extends only to the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel and does not include sidewalks, trailways, crosswalks, or any other installation outside of the improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel.”

The governmental defendants moved for summary disposition, arguing that the trail is not a “highway” for the purposes of the GTLA; as a result, they have no duty to comply with MCL 691.1402(1) by keeping the trail in reasonable repair, the defendants maintained. But the trial court denied their motion, ruling that the trail fits the definition of a highway because MCL 691.1401(e) specifically includes trailways. The trial court also held that § 1402(1) does not exempt the defendants from the duty to maintain the trail.

The governmental defendants appealed by right to the Court of Appeals and, in an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Court of Appeals reversed. The limitation of liability in § 1402(1) applies to all trailways, not merely those adjacent to an existing highway, the appellate panel held. Duffy appeals.