We all know that a plaintiff must prove four elements to succeed on a negligence claim: a duty owed, a breach of that duty, causation, and damages. A fact-intensive analysis is required to determine whether a defendant breached a legal duty. And to win a motion for summary disposition arguing that no duty was breached, the moving party must demonstrate that there are no issues of fact on this fact-specific element.
Oftentimes, conflicting testimony or an expert’s opinion is enough to create a question of fact resulting in the denial of a dispositive motion. Recently, though, the Court of Appeals agreed that summary disposition was appropriate in Estate of Homrich v Select Ins Co of Am (Docket No. 346583). It upheld the trial court’s ruling that there were no genuine issues of material fact as to whether the defendant breached a legal duty.
Around 5:30 a.m. on September 28, 2016, Christopher Folts was driving westbound on Auburn Road at or below the 50 mph speed limit. It was dark, and the roadway was unlit, but Folts had his headlights on. There were three-foot-tall recycling bins along the roadside.
As Folts came over a hill, his vehicle struck Young Homrich, who was crossing the street between recycling bins. She was 4’8”, wearing dark clothing, and not within a crosswalk. Immediately after the impact, Folts stopped his vehicle, turned his hazard lights on, and called the police.
When the impact occurred, Robert Gudenau’s vehicle was several car lengths behind Folts. He avoided Homrich by turning into a nearby entryway.
Shortly after, Tradd Vauter drove toward the scene in the same direction as Folts and Gudenau. When he came over the hill, he saw Folts’s side mirror in the road and veered to the right. Seeing Folts’s vehicle stopped on the right shoulder, Vauter then veered to the left, striking Homrich in the roadway. Homrich died from injuries sustained in the two impacts.
Her estate filed lawsuits against Folts and Vauter. Both drivers moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), arguing that there was no genuine issue of material fact on the issue of negligence. The trial court granted both motions, and the estate appealed.
The Court of Appeals began its analysis by noting several duties that a vehicle driver owes to others. A driver generally owes pedestrians a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in the operation of their vehicle.This includes making reasonable allowances for weather, traffic, and road conditions.
Under MCL 257.627(1), a driver also has a duty not to drive “at a speed greater than that which will permit a stop within the assured, clear distance ahead.” A violation of this statute is negligence per se unless the driver was confronted with a sudden emergency that they did not create or cause. But the sudden-emergency doctrine only applies if “‘the potential peril had not been in clear view for any significant length of time, and was totally unexpected.’” Estate of Homrich, unpub op at 2, quoting Vander Laan v Miedema, 385 Mich 226, 231 (1971).
Folts’s Motion for Summary Disposition
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Folts, agreeing that the evidence presented no issues of fact as to whether he was negligent. Specifically, the Court held that Folts didn’t breach his duty under the assured-clear-distance statute because he was confronted by a sudden emergency.
A key to the Court’s analysis was the fact that the potential peril (Homrich running across the roadway) “was not in clear view for any significant length of time” and “was totally unexpected.” Estate of Homrich, unpub op at 3. As Folts drove over the unlit hill before sunrise, Homrich ran in front of his vehicle while wearing dark clothing. The Court noted Homrich’s height (4’8”), which was relevant because she entered the roadway between three-foot-tall recycling bins. Although Folts saw a flash of color and swerved to the left, he was unable to avoid hitting her.
On appeal, the estate raised several arguments against summary disposition. First, it highlighted Gudenau’s testimony that he observed Homrich before she ran into the roadway and avoided her by turning into a nearby driveway. The estate contended that this evidence supported its claim that Folts was distracted or inattentive at the time of the accident. The Court of Appeals disagreed, rejecting the estate’s argument as unsupported speculation. Further, Gudenau testified that Folts—who was several car lengths ahead of him–couldn’t have avoided Homrich.
Second, the estate argued that its expert’s affidavit created a question of fact on the issue of negligence. The expert opined that Homrich was visible for 2.2 seconds before Folts struck her. Based on this opinion, the estate argued that Folts had enough time to avoid the collision. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that “[s]ummary disposition is not precluded simply because a party has produced an expert to support its position.” Id. at 3 (quotation marks and citation omitted). The expert’s affidavit didn’t establish a question of fact because it was based on the unfounded premise that nothing obstructed Folts’s view of Homrich. The Court explained that this assumption was unsupported because the evidence revealed several circumstances that may have obstructed Folts’s view (e.g., it was dark out, the road was unlit, Homrich was wearing dark clothing, and recycling bins lined the roadway). Because the expert’s affidavit only presented speculation and legal conclusions that tracked the allegations in the complaint, it didn’t preclude summary disposition.
Lastly, the estate argued that Folts breached a legal duty by failing to alert oncoming traffic of the collision. The Court disagreed, noting all of the actions that Folts took after the accident and his awareness that other drivers were signaling oncoming traffic as he dialed 911.
Vauter’s Motion for Summary Disposition
The Court of Appeals also affirmed the trial court’s ruling on Vauter’s motion.
Vauter testified that he didn’t see Homrich lying in the road or the pedestrians on the shoulder signaling with flashlights. When he saw Folts’s mirror in the roadway and vehicle parked on the shoulder with its hazard lights on, Vauter swerved to avoid the vehicle, but he did not slow down.
The Court of Appeals concluded that a reasonable jury could find, based on this evidence, that Vauter breached his duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care. And the presence of hazards that Vauter admitted he observed created a question of fact as to whether he breached his duty under the assured-clear-distance statute. But the Court held that summary disposition was still appropriate because there was no genuine issue of material fact that Homrich was more than 50% at fault for the accident.
Successfully invoking a negligence defense such as the sudden-emergency doctrine requires strong factual support. In this case, Folts demonstrated that there was no dispute as to how the accident happened: Folts struck Homrich when she suddenly entered the roadway in dark conditions.
The estate’s expert offered an opinion regarding how much time Folts had to observe and react to Homrich, but that opinion did not change the facts of the accident. Parties may offer differing accounts of how an accident occurred, but an expert’s opinion is necessarily limited to the facts provided by those involved. As this case reveals, if an expert’s opinion is based on unsupported assumptions or speculation, it can’t prevent summary disposition.
In short, distinguishing opinions and theories of negligence from the actual facts of an incident is key to prevailing on summary disposition. Clearly demonstrating that the facts are on your side will make it more likely that the court will be too.
If you have questions about obtaining summary disposition in negligence actions, please feel free to contact the author, Kyle N. Smith. More information about Collins Einhorn’s General and Automotive Liability Practice Group is available here.