Michigan Court of Appeals Holds No Governmental Immunity for Private Park Commission in Grand Haven

On March 20th, 2014, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that the Duncan Park Commission in Grand Haven, Michigan may not invoke governmental immunity, due to the fact that the Commission "is a private organization empowered by the trust to manage the park without any governmental oversight . . . ," to shield itself from civil liability stemming from the death of 11 year-old Chance Nash during a sledding accident in 2009.

In In re Estate of Chance Nash v. Duncan Park Commission, Docket No. 309403, the Court of Appeals found that "[a]side from appointing the original three trustees to the Commission, the City plays no part in the ongoing management of Duncan Park. Rather than serving as an instrumentality or “political subdivision” of Grand Haven, the Commission is an independent, autonomous, private body that administers privately-held land. While agencies, boards or authorities act on behalf of cities or towns, the Commission acts solely on its own behalf. Rather than serving as an adjunct in the administration of city government, the Commission conducts no public business; it independently manages land outside the City’s control. Designating the Commission a “board” does not transform a private group into a political subdivision.

Furthermore, the Court noted that

"[t]he Commission is a unique construct of Martha Duncan’s trust that is officially connected with the city of Grand Haven only in the sense that the mayor ratifies the Commission’s choice of successor members. Otherwise, the City has undertaken no official activities relative to Duncan Park. It does not make the rules for the park, supervise the park, maintain the park, direct the park’s use, or expend any funds to maintain the park. Rather, the Commission, a privately-appointed group of three trustees, controls private property without governmental oversight. The commissioners act on behalf of the trust, not on behalf of the city. Accordingly, the Commission is not immune from suit as a political subdivision of the city of Grand Haven."