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The Case of Kreiner v. Fischer

A summary of the Michigan Supreme Court’s first interpretation of the Legislature’s statutory definition of Serious Impairment of Body Function, 2004

The Michigan Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Kreiner v. Fischer was the Court’s first interpretation of the Legislature’s 1995 statutory definition of “Serious Impairment of Body Function.” That statutory definition was signed into law as Public Act 222 of 1995, and it took effect on March 28, 1996. For more information, read our blog on Kreiner: What is Kreiner v. Fischer?

Here is the official Michigan Supreme Court opinion for Kreiner v. Fischer.

222 PA 1995 legislatively defined what a “Serious Impairment of Body Function” is for the first time under Michigan law:

“The issue[] of whether an injured person has suffered serious impairment of body function … [is a] question[] of law for the court if the court finds either of the following: (i) There is no factual dispute concerning the nature and extent of the person’s injuries. (ii) There is a factual dispute concerning the nature and extent of the person’s injuries, but the dispute is not material to the determination as to whether the person has suffered a serious impairment of body function or permanent serious disfigurement.” (MCL 500.3135(2)(a))

“‘[S]erious impairment of body function’ means an objectively manifested impairment of an important body function that affects the person’s general ability to lead his or her normal life.” (MCL 500.3135(7))

The Kreiner decision focused on whether an impairment has affected an auto accident victim’s “general ability to lead his or her normal life.” The appellate case law that developed after Kreiner was extremely restrictive to auto accident victims in Michigan. Thousands of people injured in car accidents had their lawsuits dismissed and their right to a jury trial denied until the Michigan Supreme Court’s corrected the Kreiner Court’s interpretation six years later in the 2010 decision, McCormick v. Carrier.

Notably, the previous DiFranco decision from the Michigan Supreme Court was highly critical of “general ability” test for “prov[ing] to be an almost insurmountable obstacle to recovering noneconomic damages.” That is exactly how the Kreiner era felt for lawyers representing auto accident injury victims in Michigan.

‘Serious Impairment of Body Function’

By the Michigan Supreme Court’s own acknowledgement, the only disputed issue in determining whether Richard Kreiner and Daniel Straub each suffered a “serious impairment of body function” was “whether plaintiffs’ impairments affect their general ability to lead their normal lives.”

Below is the Court’s interpretation of “general ability” test and the Court’s instruction as to how the “general ability” analysis should proceed:

Affects The Person’s General Ability To Lead His Or Her Normal Life

“[D]etermining whether a plaintiff is ‘generally able’ to lead his normal life requires considering whether the plaintiff is, ‘for the most part’ able to lead his normal life.”

“[T]he objectively manifested impairment of an important body function must affect the course of a person’s life. Accordingly, the effect of the impairment on the course of a plaintiff’s entire normal life must be considered. Although some aspects of a plaintiff’s entire normal life may be interrupted by the impairment, if, despite those impingements, the course or trajectory of the plaintiff’s normal life has not been affected, then the plaintiff’s ‘general ability’ to lead his normal life has not been affected and he does not meet the ‘serious impairment of body function’ threshold.”

“The starting point in analyzing whether an impairment affects a person’s “general” i.e., overall, ability to lead his normal life should be identifying how his life has been affected, by how much, and for how long. Specific activities should be examined with an understanding that not all activities have the same significance in a person’s overall life. Also, minor changes in how a person performs a specific activity may not change the fact that the person may still “generally” be able to perform that activity.”

“In determining whether the course of plaintiff’s normal life has been affected, a court should engage in a multifaceted inquiry, comparing the plaintiff’s life before and after the accident as well as the significance of any affected aspects on the course of plaintiff’s overall life. Once this is identified, the court must engage in an objective analysis regarding whether any difference between plaintiff’s pre- and post- accident lifestyle has actually affected the plaintiff’s ‘general ability’ to conduct the course of his life. Merely ‘any effect’ on the plaintiff’s life is insufficient because a de minimus effect would not, as objectively viewed, affect the plaintiff’s ‘general ability’ to lead his life.”

“The following nonexhaustive list of objective factors may be of assistance in evaluating whether the plaintiff’s ‘general ability’ to conduct the course of his normal life has been affected: (a) the nature and extent of the impairment, (b) the type and length of treatment required, (c) the duration of the impairment, (d) the extent of any residual impairment [“Self-imposed restrictions, as opposed to physician-imposed restrictions, based on real or perceived pain do not establish this point.”], and (e) the prognosis for eventual recovery.”

“[The above] list of factors is not meant to be exclusive nor are any of the individual factors meant to be dispositive by themselves. For example, that the duration of the impairment is short does not necessarily preclude a finding of a “serious impairment of body function.” On the other hand, that the duration of the impairment is long does not necessarily mandate a finding of a “serious impairment of body function.” Instead, in order to determine whether one has suffered a “serious impairment of body function,” the totality of the circumstances must be considered, and the ultimate question that must be answered is whether the impairment “affects the person’s general ability to conduct the course of his or her normal life.”

“While an injury need not be permanent, it must be of sufficient duration to affect the course of a plaintiff’s life.”

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