Drunken passenger may be "the cause of the event" that resulted in death
One panel of the Court of Appeals has eschewed the plain language of a statute in order to potentially hold an intoxicated passenger entirely at fault in causing accident-related injuries. As part of the "tort reforms" pushed through the legislature several years ago, a motor vehicle accident injury victim's right to sue was eliminated if the victim was "fifty percent or more the cause of the accident". Relying upon this statutory language, a Kent County Circuit judge rejected an insurer's claim that a drunken passenger should be found more than fifty percent responsible for his own death, since he knowingly rode with an intoxicated driver and had not buckled his seat belt. The lower court held that a jury could not conclude that the passenger was "the" cause of the accident or event.
The Trial Court had held that regardless of his intoxication or seat belt usage, the dead victim could not be "the cause of the accident", since it was admitted that he did not contribute to the operation of the vehicle in any way. The Trial Court relied, in part, on a "hyper-technical" interpretation adopted by Michigan's Supreme Court in analyzing immunity legislation that referred to "the" cause of injury or death.
The Court of Appeals rejected this reasoning and held that it would be up to a jury to determine whether the dead boy's actions in riding with a drunk and failing to buckle his seat belt were "fifty percent or more the cause of the accident or event". The case is Wood v. Alighire.