Appeals panel allows snowmobiler's lawsuit against Michigan to proceed

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Correction: Judge Karen Fort Hood was elected to the Court of Appeals in 2002. An earlier version of this story misstated how she got on the court.

An Ada man severely injured when his snowmobile collided with a Michigan Department of Natural Resources ranger can sue the state for millions of dollars in damages related to the crash, an appellate panel ruled.

Gavel and book

The state Court of Appeals ruled last Thursday that the state was not protected by governmental immunity because the off-road vehicle the ranger was driving fell under a motor vehicle exemption under the law. 

"...The Gator’s status as a vehicle intended for off-road use does not, in and of itself, exclude it from the motor-vehicle exception," according to a unanimous opinion by the three-judge panel.

The judges were Karen Fort Hood, who was elected to the Court of Appeals in 2002; Kathleen Jansen, an appointee of Democratic former Gov. Jim Blanchard; and Jonathan Tukel, an appointee of Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office said it is reviewing the opinion. 

The injured snowmobile driver, Mark Goss, already has spent roughly $2.5 million in medical costs and expects his long-term care will require "tens of millions of dollars," said Ven Johnson, an attorney for Goss. He said he hopes Nessel will begin settlement talks following Thursday's decision.

"The state of Michigan would pay my and your tax dollars and try to escape the liability for something they’ve known from day one was their fault," Johnson said. "They never, ever should have played these legal games.”

The crash happened in February 2018, when DNR ranger Roy Pederson was grooming the Algonquin Ski Trial near Sault Ste. Marie on an off-road vehicle.

Pederson, according to Johnson, ran a stop sign where the ski trail crossed with a snowmobile path and hit Goss, who was driving a snowmobile. Propane cans in the back of Pederson's vehicle exploded, killing Pederson and leaving Goss with burns over half of his body.

Goss sued the state for damages, arguing it could not be shielded by governmental immunity because an exemption exists that bars immunity claims if a state employee was driving a state vehicle negligently.

Former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office argued governmental immunity still applied because the off-road vehicle, a John Deere Gator, was not considered a motor vehicle. The vehicle was not meant to be used on the roadway, nor has the Secretary of State’s office classified it as being used for the roadway, the state argued.

The Michigan Court of Claims ruled against Schuette and said the vehicle fell under the motor vehicle exemption. Last Thursday, the Court of Appeals panel upheld the Court of Claims’ ruling. 

The vehicle has seat belts, brake lights and, in some areas of the Upper Peninsula, county ordinances allow them to be used on county roadways, the appellate panel ruled.

"Regardless of the manufacturer’s recommendation, or the Secretary of State’s classification, the Gator is a vehicle one might expect to find on, or at least alongside, a roadway," according to the Court of Appeals ruling.