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A Plaintiff’s Failure to Provide Timely Notice of Intent to File Suit Under the Court of Claims Act is Grounds For Dismissal Even When No Prejudice Has Resulted

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Richard C. Kraus & April L. Neihsl
Foster Swift Litigation E-News
February 8, 2011

In a recent published decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a personal injury claim against the University of Michigan because the plaintiff did not file the statutorily required notice with the Court of Claims’ clerk within six months after the accident. McCahan v Brennan, __ Mich App __ ; __ NW2d __ (February 1, 2011).

Most claims for damages against the state or its departments, commissions, boards, institutions, arms or agencies must be filed in the Court of Claims in Ingham County.  The Court of Claims Act includes specific and mandatory notice provisions.  MCL 600.6431 provides that “no claim may be maintained” unless the claimant files the claim or a notice of intent to file claim with the Court of Claims’ clerk within one year after the claim has accrued.  The notice period is shortened to six months for actions for property damage or personal injuries.  The claim or notice must be signed under oath and include specific details about the claim and damages. 

In McCahan, the plaintiff was injured in a car accident.  The other car was owned by the university and driven by a student on university business. Five months after the accident, the plaintiff's attorney sent a letter to the university’s counsel indicating that the plaintiff intended to sue.  Although the plaintiff eventually filed a notice of intent with the Court of Claims’ clerk, the notice was not filed within six months after the accident as required by MCL 600.6431.  The Court of Claims granted summary disposition to the defendant based on the plaintiff’s failure to comply with the statutory notice requirement. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 

In a series of cases dating to the mid 1970’s, courts dismissed actions only when a plaintiff’s failure to file a timely claim or notice caused substantial prejudice to the defendant, such as the lost ability to investigate an accident scene.  In 2007, the Supreme Court interpreted a similar notice requirement for claims based on highway defects. Rowland v Washtenaw County Road Com’n, 477 Mich 197; 731 NW2d 41 (2007).  Rowland held that the statute’s plain language imposed “a notice provision with no prejudice requirement.”  The Court held that dismissal was required when timely notice was not filed even if there is no prejudice as a result.

The majority in McCahan followed Rowland’s reasoning.  First, the court held "substantial compliance does not satisfy” the statute.  The letter sent to the university’s counsel was not the notice required by the statute.  Second, the court held that the plaintiff's failure to file a notice of intent within the six-month deadline was dispositive even without a showing of prejudice to the defendant.  The dissenting opinion would have applied the prior case law imposing a substantial prejudice requirement until the Supreme Court explicitly applied Rowland to the Court of Claims Act.

McCahan is a published opinion and is binding unless reversed by the Supreme Court.  The ruling will apply to all types of contract and tort claims brought in the Court of Claims.

Individuals and businesses with potential damage claims against the state should pay careful attention to the short notice periods for filing claims or notices of intent.  Rowland was given full retroactive effect in highway defect cases.  If McCahan is given the same retroactivity, counsel will need to review the sufficiency and timeliness of claims and notices in actions pending in the Court of Claims.