Fatal Detroit Fire Apparatus Crash Must Go to Trial

The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that a trial judge erred when he dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit brought against the City of Detroit by the husband of a woman who died in a crash with a responding DFD engine. India D. Sullivan died several months after the December 4, 2017 crash.

Harold T. Sullivan brought the suit as the representative of his wife’s estate. The factual basis for the suit was explained by the Court of Appeals as follows:

  • On the morning of the accident, the Detroit Fire Department (the DFD) had dispatched three fire trucks to respond to an emergency call regarding a house fire.
  • The DFD fire trucks were traveling west on 7 Mile Road, which is a four-lane road with two lanes for each direction.
  • As the fire trucks approached the intersection with Huntington Street, India Sullivan had stopped the car she was driving in the leftmost westbound lane.
  • There were other vehicles stopped in front of Sullivan’s car and to the right of her car preventing her from pulling over any further to the right.
  • The oncoming traffic had pulled over and stopped on the south side of the road, creating a clear path in the oncoming eastbound lane that was closest to the double center line.
  • As a result, the lead fire truck merged into the eastbound lanes of 7 Mile Road and passed Sullivan without incident.
  • DFD firefighter Brett Stiles was driving the second DFD fire truck and attempted to follow behind the lead truck into the eastbound lane of 7 Mile Road.
  • There was testimony that Stiles’s fire truck had its lights and sirens activated and made audible warnings with the air horn as it approached Sullivan’s car.
  • Stiles estimated that he was approximately 5 to 10 seconds behind the first fire truck.
  • Stiles testified that Sullivan made a sudden left turn in front of his fire truck as he passed Sullivan’s car on the left, and the fire truck collided with Sullivan’s vehicle.
  • Sullivan suffered serious injuries, fell into a coma as a result of surgical complications, and later died.
  • Plaintiff, who was Sullivan’s husband and the personal representative of her estate, initially brought suit against Stiles, the City, and the DFD.
  • Plaintiff subsequently filed an amended complaint against the City only, alleging that Stiles, as an employee of the City, “operated the fire truck inconsistent with the safety of the public” ….
  • Plaintiff claimed that Sullivan “suffered catastrophic injuries within the contemplation of the Michigan No-Fault Act ultimately resulting in her death” and that the City was vicariously liable for the negligence of Stiles….
  • The City generally denied liability and asserted various affirmative defenses including, as relevant here, that plaintiff’s claims were barred pursuant to the governmental tort liability act … and that Sullivan’s injuries were the result of her own negligence.

The trial court dismissed the suit citing several reasons, including governmental immunity, a conclusion of law that the engine driver was not negligent, and that Sullivan was more than 50% at fault for the accident, making her ineligible to recover anything under state law.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding questions of fact existed that should go before a jury. Quoting from the decision:

  • Stiles stated, before he crashed into Sullivan, he was “still accelerating and . . . not going overly fast.”
  • Although the speed limit was 35 miles per hour, the City’s expert, Collision Reconstructionist Abbo, estimated Stiles was driving between 44 and 53 miles per hour.
  • Plaintiff’s expert, Crash Reconstructionist Edgcombe, estimated Stiles’s speed at the time of the crash was about 48 miles per hour.
  • DFD Lieutenant Halsell, the passenger in Stiles’s fire truck, stated Stiles applied the fire truck’s brakes “[a]t the point of impact,” but was unsure whether he was braking before then.
  • Edgcombe opined that Stiles could have reduced the chances of an accident by covering the brake before proceeding into the oncoming lane of traffic.
  • Stiles stated the oncoming lane of traffic was clear before he crossed the center line to pass Sullivan, and because Sullivan had pulled over, came to a stop, and was behaving in the same manner as the surrounding traffic, he believed Sullivan had given him permission to pass her.
  • There was conflicting evidence regarding the point at which Sullivan engaged her left turn signal.
  • Applying these facts to the due care requirements as explained by Chief Green, there is a genuine issue of material fact whether Stiles was driving with the statutorily required due care, and thus, negligently operating the fire truck.
  • Stiles was speeding at the time of the accident by 8 to 18 miles per hour despite the training for fire truck drivers in emergencies to maintain a reasonable speed and to significantly reduce speeds and cover the brakes when approaching intersections and passing vehicles in the oncoming lane of traffic.
  • There were conflicting expert opinions regarding whether Stiles exercised due care or was negligent.
  • A trier of fact could reasonably conclude from the record evidence that Stiles was negligent because he failed to exercise due care in proceeding into the opposing lane of traffic to pass Sullivan’s vehicle because he did so at an excessive speed and without covering his brake as a precaution against the possibility of civilian drivers failing to respond appropriately to the lights and sirens of the emergency vehicle.
  • When underlying issues of fact exist regarding whether the operation of the government-owned motor vehicle was negligent, then it is proper for the jury to decide those factual issues regarding negligence concerning both the application of the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity and the governmental agency’s ultimate liability.
  • Because there is a genuine issue of material fact whether Stiles was negligently operating the fire truck, the trial court erred by granting summary disposition in favor of the City.
  • Plaintiff argues the trial court improperly granted the City’s motion for summary disposition because there were genuine issues of material fact regarding Sullivan’s and Stiles’s respective degrees of fault.
  • As previously stated, one way to provide evidence of negligent conduct is by showing a party violated a statutory provision.
  • However, a violation of a statute “is only prima facie evidence of negligence,” and “[i]t remains a question of fact, for example, whether the violation had a causal connection to the claimed injury.”
  • Further, in determining whether a party is negligent, an entity’s internal rules do not fix the standard of [its] duty to others.
  • That standard is fixed by law, either statutory or common. In other words, a defendant’s violation of its own internal rule, even if the rule is designed to protect the public, does not constitute negligence per se.
  • As such, the mere allegation that a defendant breached its own internal rule or regulation does not, without more, make out a claim for negligence.
  • Here, there was record evidence that Stiles had his lights, siren, and horn engaged at the time of the accident and that Sullivan, after first stopping and remaining stationary for the first fire truck to pass, suddenly turned left in front of Stiles and collided with the fire truck Stiles was driving.
  • A reasonable trier of fact could conclude that Sullivan violated her statutory duty under MCL 257.653 to remain stopped until all three of the fire trucks had passed her.
  • However, as previously explained in this opinion, there remains a genuine question of material fact whether Stiles was also negligent.
  • Based on this record, reasonable minds could differ on the question whether Stiles or Sullivan was more at fault in causing this accident, and the trial court therefore erred by granting summary disposition in favor of the City.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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