Student paralyzed after on-campus accident questions University’s response

Tuesday, February 18, 2020 - 8:46pm

Michael Heinrich was struck by a rotted tree while riding his motorcycle to class in 2017.

Michael Heinrich was struck by a rotted tree while riding his motorcycle to class in 2017. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

In April 2017, then-Engineering senior Michael Heinrich was just shy of graduating when a rotted tree fell on him while riding his motorcycle to class. The accident left Heinrich quadriplegic after he was paralyzed at his C-6 vertebrae in the neck region of the spine.

Heinrich, who was studying to be a geotechnical engineer, said he was riding his motorcycle on a pathway below Northwood housing on North Campus when he heard a loud crack behind him. By the time he realized what was happening, he said he was pinned to the ground, paralyzed.

From the moment he hit the ground, he said he knew he was going to be paralyzed for the rest of his life.

“After my accident, I was conscious,” Heinrich said. “I might have blacked out for 10 seconds or so, but I knew what was going on, and I was laying there. I was like, ‘I need to get up.’ And I realized I couldn’t get up. At that moment, I knew I was paralyzed.”

After spending the summer in intensive care and then rehab at Michigan Medicine in 2017 — accumulating more than $2 million in medical bills — he and his family turned to the University to ask for help paying the bills. 

Heinrich’s family then pursued legal action, seeking some compensation for the care that Heinrich received and would need in the future. The lawsuit — a copy of which was obtained by The Daily — was filed in October 2018 under claims of gross negligence. The Daily also obtained the transcript of a hearing on June 26, 2019 at the Washtenaw County Circuit Court. 

Currently, lawyer Dean Googasian of The Googasian Firm, PC, a firm handling catastrophic injury cases, is representing Heinrich. His case is still in litigation.

University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said in an email to The Daily that the University regrets the incident but cannot comment on ongoing litigation.

“The University is sorry this accident occurred,” Broekhuizen wrote. “However, the tree had been appropriately inspected prior to the accident and appeared to be healthy. As a result, the circuit court dismissed the case and the plaintiff has appealed.”

Heinrich said the case was filed under claims of gross negligence and alleges the University knew the tree was rotted and yet did not follow proper procedure to ensure the safety of those passing by the tree. 

According to the transcript The Daily obtained, University lawyer Keefe Brooks said gross negligence is “conduct that essentially exhibits an I-don’t-care-type attitude.” In this case, the University arborist, Marvin Pettway, had inspected the tree for rotting and had allegedly noticed the fungus but determined it was not convincing of full-rot. 

According to Googasian, Pettway said during his deposition, that if it fell, it could “crack the concrete built for trucks to drive on.” But Brooks said that Pettway didn’t determine it a risk with the information he collected. Under this provision, the University asserted they do not owe Heinrich compensation.

Heinrich pointed to an aspect of the lawsuit that mentions patches of fungi that were apparent on the base of the tree, showing it was rotting. 

“The reason why there was even a possible case is that at the time, we looked from the Google Street maps view and you could see fungus at the base of the tree,” Heinrich said.

As time passed, Heinrich said he and his family felt the University became increasingly callous about the situation.

While he was in the intensive care unit only a few days after the accident, Heinrich was intubated and had a tracheotomy to help him breathe. His neck was snapped and his spine was broken, along with many other bones.

While in this state, he said a University liaison from the Engineering department visited him in the hospital demanding graded assignments for a course for which he served as an assistant instructor. Heinrich said he was in disbelief he was being asked this in the hospital. 

“The liaison was obviously fully aware of my situation,” Heinrich said. “She was like, ‘We need these papers that he graded.’ And here I am in the hospital trying to explain where these papers are and I was like, ‘What? You need these papers, and yet I’m literally here possibly dying.’ The University didn’t care if I was alive. They didn’t care about anything.”

Heinrich also said he was extremely upset when this liaison told him, during this exchange, that the University didn’t have the funds to help mitigate any costs for him.

“I might have broken my neck, I might have snapped everything in my body, and if there were five stages of grief for your body, I was essentially grieving,” Heinrich said. “I was going out of those pretty quickly and still, I wasn’t broken until the University told me, ‘We're not going to help you out.’”

Heinrich also described his struggle with everyday care. Before the accident, he said his parents lived in Ludington, Mich., but they have since moved to Ann Arbor to care for him full-time. 

Heinrich said care is a large financial burden, and he is now receiving federal food stamps. He also said he receives coverage through Medicaid and Medicare and uses social security to help pay for health care.

He said he now requires special medical appliances to urinate, which would cost $36,000 per year without his insurance. Heinrich said he has been forced to pay this because the University has not provided his family with financial compensation, which could pay for an at-home caregiver. This has been cited in the case as drastically harming his quality of life, due to a decrease in independence.

“I want my parents to become my parents again, (not my caregivers),” Heinrich said. “The goal (is) that I can live by myself again, my parents can move back to Ludington, and I don’t have to wake up in the morning and have to have my mom help me urinate.”

Googasian shared similar sentiments as Heinrich’s discouragement with the course of action the University has taken.

“I cannot tell you how disappointed I am with the Board of Regents that they’re willing to hide behind some legal technicalities here,” Googasian said. “I used to be a Michigan guy, but I’m not anymore, after this.”

Heinrich said he has changed his career path and is currently attending the University for graduate school, studying civil engineering with a concentration in geotechnical engineering. He said he hopes to design buildings and other public structures that are accessible to those with disabilities. 

On the first day of classes in the Fall 2018 semester, Heinrich said he tried to open the door to a University building and fell backward out of his wheelchair. Heinrich got a concussion and broke his sternum but said he still attended class that day.

According to Heinrich, the door was at the top of a slope with an incline higher than 5 percent — exceeding the national standard for ADA requirements — and had no button to push that would open it. He notified the University of the situation. Heinrich said their solution was to have him tell someone in the building when he was coming so they could open the door for him every day. 

“They got a push-button eight weeks (after that), but until then the administrative assistance in the civil engineering department held the door open for me, every day,” Heinrich said. “I’m glad they did that, but it was just awkward.”

Law student Solomon Furious Worlds, a cofounder of the law school’s Disability Rights Organization and a member of Disability Culture at U-M, said the University has a higher percentage of students registered with disabilities than peer institutions such as Ohio State University or Michigan State University, but still less than the national average. He said it is possible some students with disabilities do not self-report or that the University culture does not welcome students with disabilities.

“The number one thing that I think I learned from this disability justice work is how hidden this stuff is,” Worlds said. “That either means ... University of Michigan refuses to admit disabled students or that means that the culture at the University of Michigan is such that disabled students feel as though they cannot be their full self.”

Heinrich said he found most spaces he wanted to go on campus were not accessible and feels the University should work to mitigate this issue for disabled students.

“If you have someone who is disabled, you want to make sure that they can get anywhere,” Heinrich said. “They deserve to go anywhere on campus.”

Reporter Jenna Siteman can be reached at jsiteman@umich.edu.

Correction: A previous version of this article said Worlds was a member of the University's Disability Culture student organization, but he is a cofounder of the law school’s Disability Rights Organization and a member of Disability Culture at U-M. The article has also been updated to more accurately reflect how Heinrich pays for health care.