25 November 2020

Plaintiff Loses in Public-Building Design Defect Case Involving Student Injury

In a recent unpublished opinion, Davis v. Flint Community Schools et al., the Michigan Court of Appeals dismissed a case filed after a student was injured at school, finding that governmental immunity applied to the teacher and school district.  The case involved injuries to a student, Dishon Davis, sustained in a classroom.  Dishon, a six‑year old student with Autism Spectrum Disorder, had been playing with the lid to a bench in the classroom.  When his teacher noticed Dishon playing with the bench lid, she instructed him to close it.  In the process of closing it, the lid fell on Dishon’s hand, and a bleeding thumb sent him to the hospital.  Dishon’s mother filed a legal action on his behalf.

Generally, governmental applies to public school districts and their employees, so long as the employee is not grossly negligent and no exceptions to immunity apply.  One exception, raised in this case, is the public‑building exception.  The public-building exception requires the government to repair and maintain public buildings, and any injuries and damages that take place in a public building due a dangerous or defective condition of the building, that the government knew existed and failed to correct, creates liability for the agency.  In this case, the court found the exception inapplicable, as it only applies to injuries caused by the physical condition of the building and does not cover original design defects, such as the bench in the classroom.  Although the Plaintiff argued the bench lacked a safety device, the court reasoned that, in order for the public-building exception to apply, there would have needed to be present a safety device that used to be there and needed repair or replacing.   Nothing suggested the bench had such a safety device in the past that the district neglected to repair, replace, or maintain.

Additionally, the court determined the teacher’s actions could not objectively amount to gross negligence.  The teacher told her students not to open the bench lid and refrained from ever opening it in front of them.  Such actions, the court concluded, could not objectively be perceived as a willful and almost reckless disregard for safety or precautions.  While the Plaintiff asserted that the teacher could have done more to prevent injury, the court stated that this assertion alone would not be sufficient to prove negligence or gross negligence.   Consequently, the court opined that dismissal of this case was indeed appropriate.

The opinion can be accessed here.