Court orders Farm Bureau to pay PIP benefits in domicile dispute
Farm Bureau has become one of the more contentious and aggressive insurers in attempting to use litigation to avoid contractual obligations. Its bid to avoid paying the medical expenses associated with a young girl's head injury back-fired, however, this week. In Phillip v. State Farm Mutual and Farm Bureau General Insurance, the trial court and a unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals held Farm Bureau owed benefits to the child.
The child, whose last name is Dorsey, lived with her mother in an apartment in Dearborn Heights until June of 2004. They planned for the child to travel to Mississippi to spend the summer with her paternal grandmother. Dorsey's mother allowed the lease on their apartment to expire on June 30, 2004, because she was intending to move into a Detroit home, on Mettetal Street, which was in the process of renovation. The Mettetal Street home was uninhabitable and not finished at the end of June when the lease expired, however, so the child's mother moved into the child's father's house on Penrod Street, to await the completion of renovation to the Mettetal Street home.
During this period, the child suffered a severe brain injury in a motor vehicle accident in Mississippi. Farm Bureau, the insurer for the child's father, contended that she should collect PIP benefits from the grandmother's insurance company, State Farm; State Farm pointed out that the child's true "domicile" or "residency" was with her mother and their belongings in dad's home on Penrod Street in Detroit.
The Court first noted the legal principle that every person has a domicile or residency, "the place where a person has his home, with no present intention of removing, and to which he intends to return after going elsewhere for a longer or shorter time." It then noted at least nine factors which have been articulated to assist in identifying a person's "domicile" or residency: (1) the person's declared intent to remain permanently or indefinitely; (2) the formality of the relationships within the household; (3) whether individual homes are within the same curtilage; (4) the existence of a place of lodging other than the "residence"; (5) the mailing address; (6) the location of the person's possessions; (7) the legal address on driver's license and other documents; (8) whether the person has a bedroom in the "residence"; (9) whether the person is dependent upon the other members of the household for financial support or other assistance.
Applying these principles to the case at hand, the Court's judges unanimously rejected Farm Bureau's claim that it was not the proper insurer to pay PIP benefits to Dorsey. The court noted that the child's family never intended for her to stay with Grandmother in Mississippi and did not transfer her belongings or her "legal address" there. Further, the house under renovation on Mettetal was uninhabitable, contained none of the family's possessions, and was no one's current address. Under the law, it was clear that Dorsey's "domicile," her home, the place where she would stay for the indefinite present, was the Penrod Street home where her mother and her belongings were staying.