On August 12, 2004, Nancy Mick petitioned the Kent County Probate Court, asking the court to order that her brother, Stephen Bradley, be taken into custody for a psychiatric evaluation. Mick attested in the petition that her brother’s mental health had deteriorated to the point where he was a danger to himself and others; she said that he had pointed a gun at himself and at his wife and had told Mick he was suicidal. Mick stated in the petition, “If he doesn’t get help, I’m afraid that he could kill himself and his family.” That same day, the court issued the order to pick up Bradley; Mick delivered the order to the Kent County Sheriff’s Department and met with an officer there to prepare a police information sheet to aid in picking up her brother. But the sheriff’s department failed to execute the court’s pick-up order, and on August 21, 2004, Bradley fatally shot himself.
An internal investigation, which Mick requested, concluded that the sheriff’s department was negligent in its handling of the pick-up order and had not executed the court’s order “in the manner that mental health petitions normally are handled.” Mick, acting as personal representative of her brother’s estate, sued the sheriff’s department, maintaining that the department’s negligence and breach of duty caused her brother’s death. But the circuit court dismissed Mick’s wrongful death lawsuit on the basis of governmental immunity. Under the Governmental Tort Liability Act, MCL 691.1401 et seq., a governmental agency and its agents are immune from tort liability if “engaged in the exercise or discharge of a governmental function.” The GTLA does not extend immunity to a government agent’s “gross negligence that is the proximate cause of the injury or damage.” The circuit court concluded that Mick could not establish that the sheriff’s department was grossly negligent or that the department’s negligence was “the” proximate cause of Bradley’s death.
Mick then filed a petition in the probate court, asking the court to find the sheriff’s department in civil contempt of court for its failure to execute the court’s order. As a result of the department’s failure to execute the order, Mick asserted, she “suffered and continues to suffer damages, including, but not limited to, all of those damages set forth in the Michigan Wrongful Death Statute, MCL 600.2922, et seq.” Mick asked the court to award her “damages in an amount the Court deems appropriate.”
The sheriff’s department moved to dismiss Mick’s petition; although the petition was for civil contempt, Mick was essentially asking for tort damages, so her claim was barred by the GTLA, the department contended. Mick responded that her action was for compensatory damages for the department’s contempt of the court’s order; accordingly, her claim was not barred by the GTLA because her request for damages did not stem from a tort claim, she argued.
The probate court denied the department’s motion, holding that “[t]he claim under the contempt statute is not based in tort, but it’s based in [sic] violation of a court order” and concluded that “[g]overnmental immunity does not insulate a contemnor from the contemnor’s refusal or negligence to obey a court order.” But on appeal, the circuit court reversed, ruling that Mick’s claim for compensatory damages was barred by the GTLA. Although “the GTLA does not prevent courts from punishing, by either fine or jail time, government actors found to be in contempt … the power to award compensatory damages is not an inherent contempt power of the court,” the circuit court stated.
Mick appealed, and in a published per curiam opinion, the Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court, saying that the GTLA did not bar Mick’s contempt petition or her claim for compensatory damages.
The only issue on appeal, the Court of Appeals said, is whether the GTLA “applies to bar recovery of compensatory contempt damages sought pursuant to MCL 600.1721,” the civil contempt statute.
MCL 600.1721 provides, “If the alleged misconduct has caused an actual loss or injury to any person the court shall order the defendant to pay such person a sufficient sum to indemnify him, in addition to the other penalties which are imposed upon the defendant. The payment and acceptance of this sum is an absolute bar to any action by the aggrieved party to recover damages for the loss or injury.”
The GTLA shields a governmental agency from tort liability “if the governmental agency is engaged in the exercise or discharge of a governmental function,” the Court of Appeals explained. And the act grants immunity from “all tort liability … regardless of how the legal responsibility is determined, except as otherwise provided in the GTLA.”
The sheriff’s department argued that Mick’s contempt petition was merely an attempt to evade the GTLA. Despite its form, her cause of action should be barred because the contempt petition is based on the same facts as her earlier tort claim, the department contended.
The Court of Appeals acknowledged, “In this case, there is no doubt that Mick’s contempt action is an attempt to avoid application of the GTLA.” But the act did not bar Mick’s contempt claim: “[W]hether Mick’s contempt claim can survive a governmental immunity challenge is controlled not by the nature of the damages sought, but by whether Mick’s contempt action is a cause of action that is separate and distinct from one that is grounded in tort liability,” the appellate panel declared. “[W]e conclude that tort-like damages are recoverable in a contempt action assuming contempt can be proved … The nature of the damages being requested has no role in determining whether the action is barred by GTLA.”
The sheriff’s department appealed. In an order dated October 5, 2012, the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal. The Court directed the parties to “address whether the Court of Appeals erred by reversing the Kent Circuit Court’s ruling that the petitioner’s claim for civil contempt indemnification damages under MCL 600.1721 is barred by the Government Tort Liability Act, MCL 691.1401 et seq.”