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Diverging opinions on "serious impairment:" Republican-activist vs. Democratic-traditional

This week a Court of Appeals case pretty clearly elucidated the difference between the two political parties' opinions on who should be able to sue an at-fault driver after a car accident.  Since 1974, when the no fault act was adopted, injury victims have been able to sue the at-fault driver only if the victim suffered death, a permanent serious disfigurement or a serious impairment of bodily function.  Although the statutory language on this point has never changed, the interpretation of it has been a subject of controversy.

For many years, the question of "serious" was simply one for the jury to answer:  after hearing the evidence, did the victim's injury qualify as "serious?"  The Supreme Court did apply the normal limitations on the "reasonable" interpretation of the jury.  A farmer with two broken legs who was relegated to using two canes to walk, had suffered a "serious" injury as a matter of law--the statute did not say an injury must be "catastrophic."  And a person with an injury that was not "objectively manifested," no matter how painful, could not prove a serious injury.

Justice Clifford Taylor, Governor Engler's executive assistant's husband and a political appointee by Engler to the Court, changed the traditional formula.  He authored a majority opinion, signed by the other Republican Justices, which held that to be a "serious" injury, the injury must manifest "life-altering" consequences.  Under this standard, a high school girl who missed a year of school with a head injury was deemed not to have suffered a "serious" injury.  A plumber limited to 24 hours of work per week:  not "serious."  A previously disabled man who was struck by a car and now limited to a wheelchair: same outcome, no recovery.  Likewise, numerous injury victims with fractures of various limbs or spinal vertebra were denied any recovery.

During the last decade, the Court was briefly not under the domination of Republican Justices held under the sway of special interests (read "insurance companies and the Chamber of Commerce"). During this period, the Court reversed the "life-altering" decision, returning the law to the interpretation it had received for 30 years prior.  Since that time, it has been anticipated that Justice Young, former attorney for AAA, will eventually return the no fault threshold to a "life-altering" test if Republicans remain in the majority. Justice Young has consistently advocated for legal interpretations he held when he was an advocate for his former employer.

This week the Court of Appeals reflected this divided standard for who should be able to sue in the case of Barbara Jean Ross.  Ross was a 67-year old woman who fractured a wrist when a State Police trooper made a U-turn in front of her car.  Her car was totalled, and the scaphoid bone in her wrist was broken.  It did not heal, despite aggressive physical therapy and use of a bone growth stimulator,  and required surgery 13 months after the collision.  When the wrist did heal, Ross was left with pain in the wrist and limited range of motion.  After the wrist healed with hardware installed, she was unable to pursue several interests, including golf and tennis.  Nevertheless, the trial judge dismissed her claim summarily, holding that her injury was not "serious."

The Court of Appeals overturned this outcome, holding that Ross' evidence created a question of fact for the jury.  One Republican on the panel, Curtis Wilder, dissented and would have upheld the summary disposition.  He believed that the evidence did not establish that the injury had "affect[ed] the general ability of Ross to lead her normal life" and therefore was not a serious impairment.  Unlike the court majority, Judge Wilder felt that the 13 months between the injury and surgery, and the period of recovery from surgery, were not a sufficient time of limitation to establish a serious impairment, without more substantial permanent limitations.

In essence, the most activist Republican view of "serious impairment" looks for a catastrophic, "life-altering" injury.  The more moderate view of most Democratically-nominated and some Republican judges,  has taken a historical approach along the line that "serious" means something more than being hurt, but something less than being catastrophically hurt.

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