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Does the Michigan Supreme Court Influence Workers’ Compensation?

November 9, 2009

On November 2, 2010, two business-friendly justices were elected to the Michigan Supreme Court. Both faced opposition from personal injury lawyers and unions. One of the two justices elected was an incumbent. However, the other elected justice replaced a Granholm-appointed, union supported candidate and will therefore change the make-up of the Court. The defeat of this justice returns the Court to a 4-3 business-oriented majority.

If one wonders whether the make-up of the Michigan Supreme Court matters to workers’ compensation in Michigan, consider the case of Sazima v. Shepherd Bar and Grill.

In Sazima, the employee was required by her employer to park down the road, on a public street, so that spaces closest to the bar were available for customers. The employee slipped and was injured while walking to work on the public sidewalk. The employer denied the claim based on the general rule that injuries sustained while going to or from work are not work-related.

The employer lost the case at the magistrate level and up through the appeals. However, at the time, the Supreme Court was made up of four employer-oriented justices and three justices oriented toward unions/plaintiff’s attorneys/employees. The Supreme Court overturned the award, holding that the injury was sustained while walking to work on a public sidewalk and therefore was not work-related.

Shortly thereafter, the election of 11/2008 saw the defeat of Justice Taylor, an employer-oriented judge who was a member of the 4-3 majority in Sazima. With his replacement by a union-supported judge, the employee, Sazima, filed a motion for reconsideration. By this time, Justice Taylor had been replaced by Justice Hathaway and the Supreme Court again decided the case 4-3, but this time for the employee.

Now, with the prior 4-3 majority restored, employers will likely find that the Supreme Court is a more friendly venue for them than the magistrates and Appellate Commission. There are a large number of vacancies at the Board of Magistrates and the Appellate Commission. As these positions are filled by the Governor, these lower venues should become more favorable to employers as well.

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