The Michigan Court of Appeals recently affirmed that Michigan’s comparative fault tort laws have not completely replaced the common-law wrongful-conduct rule in an unpublished decision, Estate of Michael Travis Errett v. A Forever Recovery, Inc. (May 30, 2017). A Forever Recovery, Inc. (AFR) is a substance abuse treatment provided based in Battle Creek, Michigan. AFR was sued by the estate of a former patient who died of a cocaine and heroin overdose. The patient’s estate alleged that some of the electronic communications between the patient and his aftercare specialist, an employee of AFR, were of a romantic nature and caused the patient’s overdose.
The trial court held that the patient’s illegal use of cocaine and heroin proximately caused his death so the common-law wrongful-conduct rule prohibited the patient’s estate from recovering damages from AFR. The wrongful-conduct rule provides that a plaintiff cannot sue a defendant if the plaintiff’s own illegal or immoral act caused the plaintiff’s injuries.
The wrongful-conduct rule has two exceptions. If both parties engaged in illegal conduct, then the plaintiff may still sue the defendant if the defendant’s culpability is greater. For example, in the above situation, if the aftercare specialist had supplied the patient with his fatal dose of drugs, then the wrongful-conduct rule may not have applied. The second exception is that the rule does not apply if the defendant violated a statute that provides that the defendant is liable for such damages. For example, if the patient had used illegal drugs at the provider’s facility and fallen to his death because of a staircase that was not up to code, then the wrongful-conduct rule may not have applied.
The plaintiff sought review by the Michigan Supreme Court on May 30, 2017. On December 27, 2017, the Michigan Supreme Court denied review thereby affirming the decision of the Court of Appeals and concluding the matter.
This decision is useful precedent for substance use treatment providers who may be sued for damages caused by a former patient’s illegal behavior.