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Form over substance reigns supreme on the Michigan Supreme Court

September 20, 2012 by Steven M. Gursten

Auto accident and bus accident victims denied their day in court, 7th Amendment right by activist Republican Court

Form over substance. Technicalities over justice.  Politics over precedent. Insurance company or corporation over an individual citizen.

Our four activist Republican justices on the Michigan Supreme Court have once again proved that form over substance reigns supreme in this state, especially when it means that an injured, innocent person loses to an insurance company or corporation, “form over substance” is a fitting description of the judicial philosophy for our state’s highest court.

In two recent rulings in McCahan v. Brennan and the University of Michigan Regents and Atkins v. Suburban Mobility Authority For Regional Transportation (SMART), the court’s activist-leaning Republican majority threw out personal injury lawsuits filed by an auto accident victim and a bus accident victim for their failure to comply with certain formal, rather than substantive, “notice” requirements.

The lawsuits were dismissed because the  accident —  which the defendants already had  actual knowledge — were not written down on a piece of paper.

Significantly, the dismissals had nothing to do with an actual lack of timely knowledge of the pertinent facts surrounding the accidents.

Neither the auto owner nor the bus company denied knowing all about these accidents when they occurred.  But the cases were nevertheless dismissed because formal “written notice” of the  accident that they already knew all about was not separately provided on a piece of paper within the statutorily prescribed periods of time for providing formal “notice” (6 months for the auto accident and – under Michigan law – only 60 days for the bus accident).

In dismissing these two cases, in which two innocent and injured people now have lost their 7th Amendment right to jury trial, the Court said  knowledge does not  equal “notice” because it is not in writing by the victims.

And that’s sad for so many reasons.

Not only is this textbook “head-in-the-sand, the ends-justifies-the-means” legal reasoning, but its acceptance in this state of such form over substance  is what provides  the  inexcusable justification for denying two completely innocent accident victims their days in court.

Nevertheless, that is precisely what the high court’s activist Republican majority did, as illustrated by Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr.’s opinion in Atkins :

“[W]e hold that notice of plaintiff’s application for no-fault insurance benefits, even when supplemented by SMART’s presumed ‘institutional knowledge’ of the underlying facts of the injury, does not constitute written notice of a third-party tort claim against SMART … Knowledge of operative facts is not equivalent to written notice of a claim.”

Knowledge is not notice of auto accidents

In McCahan, Christina McCahan was injured in a crash on December 12, 2007, which was caused by an at-fault driver who was operating a vehicle owned by the University of Michigan.

Despite her lawsuit having been filed two years before the statute of limitations expired (MCL 600.5805(10)), the University of Michigan (as the defendant auto owner) wanted the lawsuit dismissed on grounds that it had not received adequate notice of Ms. McCahan’s claim within six months of the crash.

Here is what the university knew when it purportedly did not have “notice”:

  • Ms. McCahan’s attorney sent a letter to the university’s legal office on May 7, 2008, indicating that the attorney intended to represent Ms. McCahan in a lawsuit regarding the crash.
  • “On May 28, 2007, a senior claims representative of the University of Michigan Risk Management Services sent a letter to plaintiff’s counsel acknowledging counsel’s letter and indicating that the university would conduct a full investigation into the accident. The representative also requested additional information about the accident. The university’s counsel was also provided a copy of the letter from the representative.” (Michigan Court of Appeals Judge E. Thomas Fitzgerald’s dissenting opinion in the appellate court’s ruling in McCahan v. Brennan and the University of Michigan Regents)
  • “Plaintiff and her counsel [met] with and [provided] all … available documentation relating to the accident to the university’s senior claims representative” before June 12, 2008.

In Atkins, Vivian Atkins was injured in a bus accident on September 15, 2006, when the SMART  bus on which she was riding as a passenger crashed into another SMART bus.

Despite her lawsuit having been filed two years before the statute of limitations expired (MCL 600.5805(10)), SMART BUS (as the defendant bus company) wanted the lawsuit dismissed on grounds that it had not received adequate notice of Ms. Atkins’s claim within 60 days of the crash.

Here is what SMART bus knew when it purportedly did not have “notice”:

  • Within 10 days of the crash, “plaintiff contacted ASU Group, SMART’s no-fault claims representative, and advised that she had been injured in the accident.”
  • Ms. Atkins had completed an application for No-Fault benefits and returned it to ASU.
  • SMART knew the identity of Ms. Atkins’s medical providers and that she had reported “injuries to her shoulders, stomach and back.”
  • Ms. Atkins was being paid No Fault benefits for her collision-related injuries.
  • SMART was receiving “updates on plaintiff’s condition, including a physician’s report.”
  • Due to disabilities caused by her collision-related injuries, Ms. Atkins was on a “leave of absence from work” and she was receiving assistance from her mother and sister in “performing some household services …”

The bus company – SMART – knows all about the bus accident.  The bus company literally has both notice and knowledge.  But for the innocent and now seriously injured person who was riding the bus and was involved in the accident, because she did not write it on a separate piece of paper, the bus company escapes all responsibility.

How sad for the people of this state.

Related Information:

Lawyer predicts bus accidents to skyrocket in Michigan after Seldon

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