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Michigan’s Auto Accident Law Protects Drunk Drivers, Not Accident Victims

July 2, 2009 by Steven M. Gursten

A drunk driver with a .30 blood alcohol level slams head-on into the oncoming car of an 11-year-old boy. The drunk driver walks away. The boy, Anthony, doesn’t walk away at all. Anthony isn’t able to walk again for at least another month after the car accident, due to multiple fractures to his foot, wrist, hand and ribs. He also loses consciousness and requires in-home nursing care while recovering from his injuries. He misses two more months from school, and has to drop out of the many activities he participated in before the car crash, such as playing on the football team.

How does a drunk driver, who is speeding and barrels into another car, injuring a child, face no civil consequences whatsoever for his actions?

It’s because of a law in Michigan; a law that most Michigan lawyers and judges feel is badly broken and needs fixing. This law now shields drunk drivers who cause car and truck accidents and hurt people. And people who drink and drive now have civil immunity if they don’t injure their victims enough.

This stems from a 2004 Michigan Supreme Court decision called Kreiner v. Fischer. Kreiner establishes the medical precondition plaintiffs must meet before they can sue for non-economic damages in such a way that many people who suffer serious injuries have virtually zero rights. In Kreiner, the Court interpreted the Michigan No-Fault Law’s definition of “serious impairment of body function,” and said that an accident victim’s injuries must seriously affect his or her general ability to lead a normal life. Cases since Kreiner have raised the bar higher each year; causing cases of people who have suffered fractures and surgeries, and who have missed months from work and school, to be thrown out of court.

These are cases like young Anthony Kelsey’s. On June 23, 2009, the Michigan Court of Appeals dismissed Anthony’s case, Wayne Cottrill v. Craig Kenneth Senter (No. 285216). In Cottrill, Craig Senter was speeding with a blood alcohol level of .30, crossed the center lane, and struck a car carrying Anthony Kelsey, an eighth grader. Anthony’s family filed a civil lawsuit for his many personal injuries.

The Michigan Court of Appeals threw it out.

The Court held that Anthony’s injuries and impairments were not serious enough according to Kreiner, and that therefore, Senter was given immunity for the injuries he caused Anthony. In other words, Senter, a drunk driver, gets civil immunity for getting behind the wheel intoxicated and Anthony, an innocent and badly injured victim, gets nothing.

Sadly, Michigan’s auto accident law has evolved (most lawyers and judges would say devolved) to protect drunk drivers like Senter. The public policy and message this sends to Michigan drivers could not be worse.

Senter’s disregard for others could have killed someone that day. As it was, Anthony couldn’t walk for an entire month while he was recovering, and yet Senter walked away without any civil penalty. This is because we have lost our focus. In Michigan, the courts only focus on the victim. Yet drivers who cause these injuries – no matter how egregious the drivers’ choices and actions are before they get behind the wheel – are ignored.

We’ve lost our common sense. By focusing only on the accident victim, and not the perpetrator, the courts say that drunk drivers like Senter get immunity because Anthony was not “impaired enough.” We are continuinung to protect drunk drivers like Senter from civil lawsuits. Will it take another accident, where he injures someone so badly or kills someone, to finally hold him accountable?

Imagine a rape case, where the law required exclusive focus on the victim, not the rapist. Imagine a rape case where the rapist may actually be let off the hook, escaping any penalty, if the rape victim is not found “traumatized” enough after the rape. How is Senter being given civil immunity from drunk driving and injuring Anthony any different? We give Senter immunity because his actions are not subject to judicial inquiry, only those of his victim.

Our Michigan auto accident law was not supposed to create results like this one. It was originally created to protect drivers from clearly “frivolous” and “de minimus” injuries; not to shield drunk drivers who cause serious injuries.

Contact your legislators. Tell them you want this law changed so drunk drivers can be held accountable in court for the injuries they cause.

Steven M. Gursten is recognized as one of the nation’s top experts in serious car and truck accident injury cases and automobile insurance no-fault litigation. Steve has received the largest jury verdict for an automobile accident case in Michigan in four of the past seven years, including 2008, according to Michigan Lawyers Weekly.

— Photo courtesy of Creative Commons, by Steve Kallestad

Michigan Auto Law is the largest law firm exclusively handling car accident, truck accident and motorcycle accident cases throughout the entire state. We have offices in Farmington Hills, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Sterling Heights. If you have been in a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver, call (800) 777-0028 for a free consultation with an auto accident lawyer.

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3 Replies to “Michigan’s Auto Accident Law Protects Drunk Drivers, Not Accident Victims”

  1. this law may find by the victims unfair. Even if the victim(s) was not severely injured the driver should also be accountable for any damages he had made in order for them to understand and be seriously responsible behind the wheel. I know that nobody wants an accident to happen but if we are responsible enough we can avoid accidents. Any legal help specially by the experienced accident attorney is a big help.

  2. Hi Steve,
    Just wanted to thank you for your thoughts you put into our sons appeal on June 23, 2009. Anthony Kelsey was the 8th grader who was hit head on by a drunk driver. Yes, I feel my son was raped by someone else’s actions and our son has to take it.

    The courts are wrong for watching our (MI) children suffer from horrible and tragic events and not give our children justice! He was 13 for goodness sake and now is 17, he wasn’t sure what was going on. He went by what people told him or questioned him in a certain way. A 13 year old boy has to much pride and really has no clue on the outcome to say, “Yes I hurt”. Anthony said if he knew now, on how he would feel, he stated, “I would never have said I would heal completely to play sports again”. “I was embarrassed and humiliated from the accident and how I functioned afterwards that I just wanted it over.”

    He did try wrestling (which hurt his ribs on the left side). He never did play football because he hurt to much. He even lost 30 lbs thinking the weight was the issue. Instead of joining his friends he went to cheer them on from the bleachers! I guess that’s what they consider full recovery!! Bottom line he still hurts and to this day has never got his quick wit back (thought process), which I miss dearly.

    I’m thankful the lord spared my family of the lose of a loved one, but why should they judge on how he feels and will feel years from now? My family is modest and very forgiving, but when your children miss the best time of their lives playing sports and having fun really hurts in more than one way. Who knows maybe he was that good to have earned a scholarship.
    Senter is a family man who didn’t hold his values like our family. He now drives a very nice car, yes he can drive already after what he has done. It seems he has gained from his horrible actions, while my family is still hurting and always in pain.

    My thought is what values is this teaching our kids? Drinking and driving with a slap on the wrist? Legislation doesn’t care! Michigan is hurting financially, why would anyone want to live in a state that don’t stand up for your rights?

    Thanks for your thoughts, we share the same.

  3. Actually, Craig just got his full license to drive last month. He spent 1 year in jail. He was allowed to drive back and forth to work for a time before he received it full time. He laid in a coma for weeks. He is now a Christian and is very sorry for what he did and what could have happened. Drunk driving is absolutely not acceptable. I believe our laws are not harsh enough. Regardless of what you may believe, he is very much a family man. It’s not an excuse but the people I have heard yell the loudest about drunk driving have themselves driven while under the influence. The license should be taken in the first offense. Why wait until an accident happens. I feel for the family of the boy that was hurt though I believe that he may have had problems that existed before the accident and the family tried to blame th e accident. This whether believed or not was a blatent lie. Once again, I believe the punishment should be harsh. I will not judge whether Craig spent enough time in jail or not. He has undergone multiple surgeries and will himself deal with a life time of pain. Does he deserve this? Possibly so.

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