By distorting beyond common sense the meaning of a word, justices deny No-Fault PIP benefits to woman ‘alighting’ from her car
The conservative Republican justices on the Michigan Supreme Court strike again. This time they have ruled that accident victim Mona Lisa Frazier cannot collect Michigan No-Fault benefits. But the thing that should trouble all lawyers and judges is how the Court arrived at its decision to deny No-Fault benefits in this case.
The Court’s Republican majority determined that her injuries were not sufficiently related to her use of her car to merit allowing her to collect No-Fault benefits. These insurance benefits include important protections for people in Michigan, such as medical expense coverage and wage loss.
To reach its rather absurd conclusion, the majority engaged in a bewildering, hair-splitting game of semantics. I encourage everyone to personally read this case, to see what extent the Court went here to deny this woman her No Fault (PIP) benefits.
Because Mona Lisa would have been entitled to collect No-Fault PIP benefits if she was “alighting” from her car, the majority found a way to say that a woman alighting from her car as any one of us would think of or define the term was not, well, “alighting” from her car.
The word “alight” means coming down from something, like getting out of a vehicle or getting off of a boat.
“At the time of her injury,” the majority declared, “plaintiff had already alighted.”
Never mind that here Mona Lisa was still holding onto the car door as she was emerging from her car and planting her feet on the ground!
And forget the fact that a jury on the trial court level, and three sitting Michigan Court of Appeals judges on the appellate level, as well as three dissenting Michigan Supreme Court justices also agreed that Mona Lisa was “alighting” from her car when she was injured.
The problems here go far beyond whatever number of people in this state are injured every year alighting from motor vehicles. The dangers have been manifested in how this Court has repeated changed definitions to suit their purposes, and in the process, changed long-established Michigan law and threatened the respect all lawyers have, and must have, for precedent and stare decisis. Such decisions as Cameron v Auto Club and DeVillers v. Auto Club have shaken the faith that lawyers of all political ideologies have in our highest Court in this state. But such details as legal precedent and the common sense use of words seem to be no match for our Court’s current conservative and very pro-insurance company Republican majority, for whom no word’s common sense meaning is so clear that it cannot be deconstructed and reconfigured to the benefit of an insurance company.
What ‘alighting’ from a parked vehicle means – and should mean – in Michigan: a No-Fault lesson
Generally, under Michigan law, a person injured as a result of the use or operation of a “parked vehicle” cannot collect Michigan No-Fault benefits, which may include payment of medical expenses, reimbursement for lost wages and/or replacement services, attendant care services and reimbursement for medical mileage.
However, an exception to the general rule exists if an “injury was sustained by a person while … alighting from a vehicle.” (MCL 500.3106(1)(c))
Although Michigan law does not define “alighting” as it is used in the statute, a 1982 Michigan Court of Appeals panel explained that “an individual has not finished ‘alighting’ from a vehicle at least until both feet are planted firmly on the ground.”
In Mona Lisa’s case, Frazier v. Allstate Insurance Company, the Supreme Court’s four-justice majority used the “both feet are planted firmly” language to put its own, binding spin on what “alighting” means:
“[T]hat the injury must be sustained ‘while’ alighting indicates that ‘alighting’ does not occur in a single moment but occurs as a result of a process. The process begins when a person initiates the descent from a vehicle and is completed when an individual has effectively ‘descend[ed] from a vehicle’ and has ‘come to rest’ — when one has successfully transferred full control of one’s movement from reliance upon the vehicle to one’s body. This is typically accomplished when ‘both feet are firmly on the ground.'”
Because the Michigan Supreme Court has not previously interpreted “alighting” and because the court’s ruling are binding on all lower state courts (i.e., the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Circuit and District courts), the Frazier majority’s “take” on “alighting” will be the law going forward for accident victims whose injuries arise from the use or operation of parked vehicles.
– Steve Gursten is one of the nation’s top insurance lawyers handling auto accident lawsuits. He is head of Michigan Auto Law and president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association. Steve frequently writes and speaks about Michigan No-Fault law and auto insurance, and is available for comment.
Related information to protect yourselves:
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