18 March 2021

No Case for Wheelchair-Bound Student Who Collided with School Bus

In a recent unpublished case, Storck v. Washtenaw Indep. Sch. Dist., the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a case involving a wheelchair‑bound student, Ivan Williams, Jr., who suffered an injury while at school.  While being unloaded from the bus after a school trip, the assistant working with Williams placed the wheelchair toward an inclined sidewalk and applied the brakes.  While the assistant was searching for a pen to sign transportation papers, the brakes on the wheelchair disengaged, causing Williams to roll from the sidewalk into the side of a bus, throwing him from his wheelchair and injuring him.   Williams filed a legal action, alleging gross negligence against the assistant, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) against Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD).  The trial court dismissed the case on governmental immunity grounds, reasoning there was no evidence of gross negligence.

On appeal, the Plaintiff argued the assistant’s conduct was grossly negligent.  Where a plaintiff alleges a negligent tort against a government employee, factors that are considered include determining: whether the employee was acting within the scope of their authority, whether the governmental agency was engaged in the exercise of a governmental function, and whether the employee’s conduct amounted to gross negligence that was the proximate cause of the injury.  Gross negligence occurs where the conduct is so reckless that it shows a lack of concern as to whether an injury will result, or a willful disregard of both safety measures and substantial risks.  Plaintiff argued that, by leaving him at the top of the incline of the sidewalk, facing the bus and without confirming the wheelchair brakes were fully engaged, the assistant was grossly negligent.  The appellate court determined that, even assuming the assistant had failed to check the wheelchair brakes, that failure would have been negligent at worst.  Additionally, although Plaintiff argued the assistant could have used additional safety precautions, the court concluded that the notion the assistant could have done more did not suffice to meet even an ordinary negligence standard, let alone a gross negligence standard.

Finally, Plaintiff claimed WISD violated Title II of the ADA.  Plaintiff was required to prove (1) he was a qualified individual with a disability, (2) he was either excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of WISD’s services or programs, and (3) such exclusion or denial was based on his disability.  The court concluded that the Plaintiff was unable to establish factors (2) and (3).  Because Williams was provided with the same educational instruction at home following his injury that he would have been given in class, the claim failed.  It also failed because Plaintiff asserted that he was excluded because of his injury; however, the ADA required that the exclusion be based on a person’s disability.  With that, the court affirmed dismissal of the case.

The opinion can be accessed here.