MSC Opinion: Government Tort Liability Act bars contempt action where plaintiff is seeking tort-like damages
On Friday, in lieu of granting leave to appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the Michigan Court of Appeals in In re Bradley Estate. In so doing, the Court concluded that the Governmental Tort Liability Act (“GTLA”) provides governmental agencies with immunity from civil contempt petitions seeking compensatory damages under MCL 600.1721.
On August 12, 2004, Mr. Bradley’s sister obtained an order from the Kent County Probate Court requiring her brother to be taken into custody pending a psychiatric evaluation. The Kent County Sherriff’s Department (“KCSD”) failed to execute the pick-up order. Nine days later, on August 21, 2004, Mr. Bradley killed himself. Mr. Bradley’s estate initially filed a wrongful-death action against the KCSD in circuit court. That action was dismissed, in part, because the court held that the KCSD enjoyed immunity from such suits under the GTLA.
Mr. Bradley’s estate then reframed its claim as a civil-contempt action, and filed the petition in probate court seeking the same type of wrongful-death damages from the KCSD. Once again, the KCSD sought summary disposition arguing that, under MCL 691.1407, it was immune from this claim because plaintiff was seeking tort damages. The probate court denied the motion. The KCSD appealed that decision to the circuit court, which reversed the probate court’s decision concluding that the GTLA barred plaintiff’s claim for contempt. The Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court’s ruling and held that the GTLA does not protect the KCSD from contempt cases.
The Supreme Court found that “tort liability”, as used in the GTLA, encompasses all types of civil wrongs that do not arise out of breach of a contract. Specifically, the Court held that MCL 600.1721, under which Bradley’s estate sought to collect damages, imposes “tort liability” because it provides for an award of indemnification or compensatory damages where defendant has committed a non-contractual civil wrong. Accordingly, the Court concluded that MCL 691.1407(1) of the GTLA provides immunity for governmental immunity from these particular civil contempt petitions. The judgment of the Court of Appeals was vacated and the case was remanded to the Kent County probate court for entry of an order granting summary disposition in favor of the KCSD.