State loses key immunity decision in snowmobile crash

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Posted at 12:30 PM, Jan 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-29 12:30:10-05

DETROIT (AP) — A snowmobile driven by state employees is a motor vehicle under Michigan law, the state Supreme Court said, a key decision that could make taxpayers liable in a crash that injured two people.

The court heard arguments on Jan. 13 and decided Friday to let a Court of Appeals opinion stand.

The issue was whether the Department of Natural Resources could claim governmental immunity and avoid legal responsibility for an incident on Pinney Bridge Road in Antrim County.

Audrey West was thrown into a river while her father was pinned under his snowmobile in 2018. They said they were forced to swerve when two DNR officers on snowmobiles were on the same road but in the wrong direction.

Justice Brian Zahra was the only member of the court who wrote a dissent. He said a snowmobile should not be lumped in with a car or truck, vehicles that carry no immunity for a state agency if an injury occurs.

“The dissimilarities are striking,” said Zahra, who noted that snowmobiles typically need considerable snow and don’t have tires, a roof or certain safety equipment.

In a separate but related case, Mark Goss was severely injured when his snowmobile collided with a vehicle driven by a DNR ranger who was grooming a ski trail in Chippewa County in 2018. The ranger, Roy Pederson, was driving a Gator utility vehicle and died.

The Supreme Court affirmed a decision by the appeals court, which said the utility vehicle, like a snowmobile, doesn’t trigger governmental immunity in an injury lawsuit.