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Michigan Supreme Court Upholds Strict Enforcement of Governmental Notice Requirements

September 18, 2012

A divided Michigan Supreme Court recently held that statutory governmental notice requirements are to be strictly interpreted and enforced as plainly written. McCahan v Brennan , 2012 Mich LEXIS 1257 (Docket No 142765, issued 8/20/12).  The Court thus upheld the dismissal of a personal injury claim against the University of Michigan due to the plaintiff's failure to comply with a statutory notice requirement, despite the defendant's timely receipt of actual notice of the claim and lack of prejudice from the untimely statutory notice.

The plaintiff in McCahan sought to recover damages against the university for injuries she sustained in an automobile accident involving a student who was driving a car owned by the university.  Any person who wishes to bring an action against a state entity for personal injury or property damage is statutorily required to file with the Clerk of the Court of Claims either a specific notice of intent to pursue a claim or the claim itself within six months of the incident giving rise to the claim.  MCL 600.6431(3).  Although the plaintiff failed to file the required notice of intent to file a claim with the Clerk of the Court of Claims within the required six-month period of time, her attorney provided the university's legal office with a letter regarding her accident and both the plaintiff and her attorney met with the university's senior claims representative and furnished available documentation within that period of time.

The plaintiff filed her notice of intent to bring suit with the Clerk of the Court of Claims more than ten months after the accident, and she filed her suit over a month later.  In granting the defendant's motion to summarily dismiss the plaintiff's claim for failure to comply with the statutory notice requirement, the Court of Claims rejected the plaintiff's arguments of substantial compliance with the notice requirement and lack of any prejudice suffered by the defendant.  Upon initial appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed in a split decision. McCahan v Brennan , 291 Mich App 430, 804 NW2d 906 (2011).

Upon further appeal to the Supreme Court, the majority of the Court stated that the primary objective when interpreting a statute is to discern the Legislative intent.  The majority noted that a governmental agency generally is immune from tort liability in Michigan, and that a statutory notice requirement is one of the permissible conditions the government may impose to subject itself to liability.  Strictly construing the actual language of the notice requirement at issue, the majority held that the various subsections of the statute must be read and construed together as a cohesive whole, and that the courts may not engraft an "actual prejudice" component onto the statute before enforcing the legislative prohibition.

The Supreme Court thus expanded the application of its previous decision involving the highway exception to governmental immunity in Rowland v Washtenaw County Road Commission , 477 Mich 197, 731 NW2d 41 (2007).  A differently composed but similarly divided Supreme Court in Rowland addressed the statutory requirement under the highway exception that an injured person provide notice within one hundred twenty days from the time the injury occurred.  MCL 691.1404(1).  Upholding the dismissal of a claim based upon an untimely filing of a notice twenty days beyond that deadline, the Court in Rowland overruled earlier caselaw supporting the proposition that notice provisions are only constitutional if they contain a prejudice requirement.  The Court in McCahan clarified that its previous holding in Rowland is not limited to cases involving the highway exception to governmental immunity.  To the contrary, it clearly stated that "when the Legislature specifically qualifies the ability to bring a claim against the state or its subdivision on a plaintiff's meeting certain requirements that the plaintiff fails to meet, no saving construction – such as requiring a defendant to prove actual prejudice – is allowed."

Although the Supreme Court's decisions in both McCahan and Rowland were issued by a divided court subject to strong dissents, the current binding and applicable law in Michigan requires that any person who wishes to bring a claim against a governmental entity must strictly comply with statutory notice requirements.

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