The Michigan Supreme Court’s notorious new Gang of Four is apparently in the holiday mood. In the spirit of giving, the Court ruled 4-3 that auto insurance companies do not need to pay No-Fault benefits to people who are closing a vehicle door in the process of exiting a parked car. The majority opinion was signed by Chief Justice Robert Young and Justices Stephen Markman, Mary Beth Kelly, and Brian Zahra.
In Frazier v Allstate, the plaintiff had just placed some items in the passenger side of her car and was in the act of closing her vehicle door when she slipped on ice while still in contact with the vehicle. At issue in the case was the interpretation of MCL 500.3106, which addresses auto accident victims’ entitlement to No-Fault benefits when the incident involves a parked vehicle. An injured person is entitled to personal injury protection benefits if she is hurt as “a direct result of physical contact with equipment permanently mounted on the vehicle[,]” or if the injury occurs “while occupying, entering into, or alighting from the vehicle.”
Under most ordinary interpretations of the statute, one might reasonably conclude that the plaintiff was in physical contact with equipment permanently mounted on the vehicle – the door. The Gang of Four, after consulting a dictionary to define “equipment” and “vehicle,” scoffed at this conventional wisdom and held that “the constituent parts of ‘the vehicle’ itself are not ‘equipment.’” This is odd because nothing in the definitions of “vehicle” in the dictionaries they cite inherently requires any particular component such as a door, a windshield, or even tires. That the Gang of Four used a dictionary to define “vehicle” is even more perplexing, because the No-Fault Act provides a specific definition for “motor vehicle.” With this logic, it is hard to imagine anything that could be considered “equipment.”
After the Court dispensed with any notion that the injury involved “equipment,” it next addressed the question of whether the plaintiff was “alighting” from the vehicle. In Herculean act of hair-splitting, the Court decided that the phrases “entering into” and “alighting from” are not analogous. In fact, the Gang of Four implicitly admits that had the plaintiff been injured while opening the door to get into the car, she would be entitled to No-Fault benefits. However, because she had completed the act of “alighting” (as opposed to “exiting”), she is not entitled to benefits – even though she was still closing the door!
The Court’s linguistic gymnastics are reminiscent of the NFL’s baffling “process of the catch” rules. Regardless of whether a “football move” is required or when exactly a catch is completed and the receiver becomes a runner, ordinary fans watching the play are frequently dumbfounded by the officials’ ruling. The same seems to be true with the Michigan Supreme Court, which has again defied conventional wisdom to reach the result they wanted in the first place.
Happy Holidays, insurance companies! Enjoy your gift of increased profits from your friends at the Michigan Supreme Court.
Thankfully, 2012 brings the opportunity to vote in 3 NEW Justices. Stay tuned for my recommendations, but NEW JUSTICES will be the key to a level playing field. And remember, you have to vote separately for the Supreme Court – voting a "straight ticket" DOES NOT work because the Justices are on the nonpartisan portion of the ballot. With your help, 2012 can be great new beginning.
recently named in the 2009 edition of Best Lawyer's In America, David Mittleman has been representing seriously injured people since 1985. A partner with Church Wyble PC—a division of Grewal Law PLLC—Mr. Mittleman and his partners focus on medical malpractice, wrongful death, car accidents, slip and falls, nursing home injury, pharmacy/pharmacist negligence and disability claims.