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How can we protect the elderly, disabled who rely on wheelchairs & scooters from getting taken advantage of by insurance companies if they’re hit by a car?

August 14, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

Michigan needs to act now to enact an exception for wheelchairs and scooters to its motor vehicle definition – like New York state

People in motorized wheelchairs

I’ve been writing about a particularly ugly case involving State Farm and Farm Bureau (little surprise both insurance companies are also on the list of spiking customer complaints) denying No Fault insurance benefits to a man who was hit by a car while using a motorized wheelchair.

In the Macomb County No Fault lawsuit, George Veness is being denied No Fault insurance benefits by State Farm because he didn’t have  auto insurance on the motorized wheelchair he was using to cross the street in Centerline, Michigan when he was struck by a car. State Farm says Mr. Veness is an “uninsured” driver. Note that Mr. Veness is paralyzed from the waist down.

The insurance companies say he should have insured his wheelchair – with car insurance!  As of this date and after talking to a number of insurance agents and lawyers, I still have yet to find an insurance company that even offers this coverage, even though the insurers are saying the injured accident victim should have had it on his wheelchair.

The real danger is this terrible case puts every single elderly person, the disabled, and all people who already rely upon motorized wheelchairs in great legal jeopardy if State Farm and Farm Bureau are successful in denying this man’s claim.

Being found to be an “uninsured driver” under Michigan’s No Fault automobile law would allow State Farm and Farm Bureau to deny Mr. Venness’ PIP claim, and allow Farm Bureau to deny his right to sue for compensation for his injuries and pain and suffering against the at-fault driver of the car that struck him.

Again, it bears repeating: There’s no auto insurance policy for wheelchairs in existence that I have been able to find.

How to stop these insurance companies from doing this to potentially tens of thousands of people?

This doesn’t just affect Mr. Veness. This potentially effects tens of thousands of people, and that’s just in Michigan.

Maybe the insurance industry is doing this intentionally to create a huge new market so they can sell a lot of insurance to all the people that rely upon motorized wheelchairs and scooters. Maybe they’re doing this because they just don’t care. George Veness is just one more claim that they deny, with or without any cause, just like they deny valid and legitimate insurance claims for No Fault benefits from thousands of car accident victims every year.

But there is a solution. If Michigan simply amends its definition of a motor vehicle to exclude motorized wheelchairs, the possibility of insurance companies forcing people in wheelchairs to purchase No Fault insurance ends immediately.

Michigan lawmakers could look to New York. Here’s the definition of motor vehicle in New York:

“Every vehicle operated or driven upon a public highway which is propelled by any power other than muscular power, except (a) electrically-driven mobility assistance devices operated or driven by a person with a disability, (a-1) electric personal assistive mobility devices operated outside a city with a population of one million or more, (b) vehicles which run only upon rails or tracks, (c) snowmobiles as defined in article forty-seven of this chapter, and (d) all terrain vehicles as defined in article forty-eight-B of this chapter. For the purposes of title four of this chapter, the term motor vehicle shall exclude fire and police vehicles other than ambulances. For the purposes of titles four and five of this chapter the term motor vehicles shall exclude farm type tractors and all terrain type vehicles used exclusively for agricultural purposes, or for snow plowing, other than for hire, farm equipment, including self-propelled machines used exclusively in growing, harvesting or handling farm produce, and self-propelled caterpillar or crawler-type equipment while being operated on the contract site.”

State Farm, Farm Bureau, or another insurer could still try to bring this legal argument in New York, because their motor vehicle statutory definition does not exclude the elderly.

However, if Michigan were change its definition of “motor vehicle” in both the Motor Vehicle Code and in the No Fault Law to conform with New York state’s definition, then Michigan would also need to amend its definition of “electric personal assistive mobility device” (MCL 257.13c)  to include 4-wheeled, motorized wheelchairs.

If Michigan wanted an easier fix, then lawmakers should consider amending the definition of “motor vehicle” in both the Motor Vehicle Code and in the No Fault Law to read more like Missouri’s definition of “motor vehicle”:

“‘Motor vehicle’ … [means] … any self-propelled vehicle not operated exclusively upon tracks except motorized bicycles …” (M.S. 302.010(10))

“‘Vehicle’ … [means] … any mechanical device on wheels, designed primarily for use, or used on highways, except motorized bicycles, vehicles propelled or drawn by horses or human power, or vehicles used exclusively on fixed rails or tracks, or cotton trailers or motorized wheelchairs operated by handicapped persons.”

As with conforming to New York’s law, a Missouri-inspired amendment might need to be tweaked so that not only “handicapped” motorized-wheelchair users are covered, but also elderly, disabled and injured motorized-wheelchair users.

Here’s Michigan’s definition of a motor vehicle (MCL 500.3101, Sec. 3101(e)):

“Motor vehicle” means a vehicle, including a trailer, operated or designed for operation upon a public highway by power other than muscular power which has more than 2 wheels. Motor vehicle does not include a motorcycle or a moped, as defined in section 32b of the Michigan vehicle code, 1949 PA 300, MCL 257.32b. Motor vehicle does not include a farm tractor or other implement of husbandry which is not subject to the registration requirements of the Michigan vehicle code pursuant to section 216 of the Michigan vehicle code, 1949 PA 300, MCL 257.216. Motor vehicle does not include an ORV.”

Michigan is one of 12 states that has a No Fault Law – and that’s a big problem

The 12 states that currently have No-Fault insurance laws are:

  • Florida,
  • Hawaii,
  • Kansas,
  • Kentucky,
  • Massachusetts,
  • Michigan,
  • Minnesota,
  • New Jersey,
  • New York,
  • North Dakota,
  • Pennsylvania and,
  • Utah.

Three of those states—Kentucky, New Jersey and Pennsylvania—give residents the choice of picking No-Fault insurance or opting out in favor of “full tort” coverage, which is available in just about every other state. Full tort coverage means that there’s no limit to the amount of money that a person can sue for in civil court.

But, for insurance customers in the states of Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota and Utah, opting out of no-fault coverage isn’t even an alternative.

As terrible as this is, it goes beyond what two rather awful insurance companies are doing to Mr. George Veness. This problem is a lot bigger than people realize. This loophole that these two insurance companies are exploiting to deny Mr. Veness also has the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of people in states with No Fault laws.

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