"Activist" judges restrict No Fault Act causation when pedestrian hurt by snowmobiler blinded by car
The consumer-friendly aspect of Michigan's No Fault Act was its provision of medical coverage and three years of wage loss (and minimal domestic services) to all persons who suffered injury as a result of the "use, ownership or maintenance" of a motor vehicle. When the Act was adopted in the 1970s, interpreting jurists emphasized that it represented a policy choice to provide broad, minimal compensation for all injury victims without requiring proof of fault or retention of an attorney. Judicial opinions applying the Act pointed out that the statutory language did not require the normal proof of legal or "proximate" causation: the injured person simply needed to prove that there was a causal nexus between use of motor vehicle and the alleged injury. Use of a vehicle must be "a significant contributing factor."Over the past 35 years, numerous high court cases have re-emphasized this principle. For example, when a motorist was injured by a bomb attached to his ignition, the Supreme Court held that his injuries "arose out of the use of a motor vehicle" even though a third-party's criminal intent was also a cause. Death resulting from a rock thrown on to the highway from a freeway overpass was deemed compensable. When a bus splashed polluted industrial water on a pedestrian causing blindness, no fault causation was deemed established.
In a case this week entitled Daniel Vince Constantino v. Citizens Insurance Company of America, Judges Kirsten Kelly and Hoekstra rejected this longstanding case law, however, and applied a much more stringent standard to deny Constantino PIP medical benefits. Constantino was walking his dog on the edge of the road when he was struck by a snowmobile and suffered severe injuries. The snowmobiler alleged that he never saw Constantino because an oncoming motorist failed to dim his bright headlights. Constantino argued that if the jury accepted this explanation, it would establish the motorist's conduct as "a cause" of Constantino's injuries.
The Court of Appeals majority--two Republicans known to favor insurance arguments over consumers' claims--rejected longstanding case law and filed an opinion that is surprising for its superficial analysis and hypocrisy. The two judges suggested that it was "inevitable" that the snowmobile would strike Constantino and that "blinding bright lights was only one of many reasons why the snowmobile driver" might have struck Constantino. The former suggestion is pure speculation, as the dissenting judge pointed out, and the latter claim is irrelevant: there being evidence to support the claim, it was up to the jury to decide whether it was true. If the claim was believed, then blinding headlights were "a cause" of the injuries, and they were suffered, in part, "as a result of the use of a motor vehicle."
The continuing election of insurance-friendly judges to Michigan's courts have emboldened the insurance industry to pursue more and more aggressive policies and claims management, and the willing activism of these judges continues to reward the insurers' efforts.