Governmental immunity leaves homeowners, families frustrated with 'lack of accountability'

Posted at 3:30 PM, Mar 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-20 18:35:35-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — It happened to parents of Oxford High School students who suffered the greatest losses.

"When it comes to governmental immunity, people need to stand up with us and be outraged especially if they’re a parent and have children in public school," said Jill Soave. Soave's son, Justin Shilling, was among the four students killed at Oxford High School on November 30, 2021.

A judge recently cited governmental immunity as the reason for dismissing a lawsuit filed by Soave and other families against the school district and members of the staff and administrators.

In an unrelated case, government immunity is also why a lawsuit against the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), the City of Detroit, and the City of Grosse Pointe Park was dismissed.

"I can't hold these people accountable to do their jobs," said Cheryl English who lives in Detroit's East English Village.

English, an artist in pottery, said she has lost faith in government after the basement of her home and countless others flooded in June 2021 during heavy rains.

A judge recently ruled that homeowners could not sue the GLWA, the City of Detroit or the City of Grosse Pointe Park on the grounds of governmental immunity.

"We were told it was our fault. And then we find out, further on down the road, that those pump stations were down, that they knew those pump stations were down," English said.

Attorney Paul Doherty, a resident of Grosse Pointe Park whose basement also flooded, filed the class action lawsuit that was dismissed by Circuit Court Judge Annette Berry.

“We share the monumental frustration and disappointment of our more than 600 clients who were devastated by the June 2021 floods following Judge Annette Berry’s decision to dismiss the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewage Department from our lawsuit. The decision was particularly frustrating because we were not allowed to engage in any discovery - not a single deposition was taken of those on duty when the storm pumps failed - to uncover the truth behind what have been repeated failures at the GLWA pumping stations," Doherty wrote in a statement.

7 Action News spoke to attorney Michelle Richards, an associate professor at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law about governmental immunity.

"It's hard to let go of those emotions and wanting to rescue what are innocent victims," Richards said. "And then the second thing is that there is a lack of understanding about what governmental immunity is."

And there are exceptions to governmental immunity.

"We vote people in or we hire people to do a job within a government, and we want to make sure that we're not second guessing their decisions that are made within the scope of their duties. And certainly if they do it in a manner that is egregious, the legislature has provided an exception, the gross negligence exception, for example, for employees so that they don't operate without any risk of liability. But the risk is limited," Richards said.