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Michigan Supreme Court Republicans wipe out No Fault van obligation at AutoOwners' request

Kenneth Admire was catastrophically injured in a car accident in 1987.  He is unable to speak or walk and his right side is "virtually useless" (by which we assume the Court means dysfunctional).  His dad, Russ Admire, became his guardian.  Kenneth requires wheelchair-accessible transportation.

From 1987 until 2007, Auto-Owners satisfied its duty under the No Fault law by purchasing a van and making the wheelchair modifications necessary to facilitate the Admires' use.  After assisting with three vans for their useful life, as was the custom within the industry, Auto-Owners notified the Admires that it would no longer purchase a van for Kenneth. It interpreted recent decisions by the Republican majority on the Michigan Supreme Court as signalling an intent to eliminate this duty.

In the Griffith case, the Republican majority had announced a determination to significantly limit all no fault carrier's PIP obligations (medical care and limited wages and household services).  The insurance industry had heavily supported these Justices' election, and they would get what they paid for.  Starting with Griffith, the majority has made wholesale changes in the interpretation of the otherwise-stable 1974 no fault statutory scheme.  In Griffith, the insurer sought to avoid paying for hospital food consumed by the injured insured.  The Court held that the insurer was required to pay for institutional food only if the patient was required to eat "that particular food."  The Court has since eliminated an at-fault insurer's duty to pay for household services in excess of $20.00 per day or after three years. [That's certainly fair compensation for the loss of a catastrophically-injured mother's services to a family with young children, wouldn't you say?] The Court has eliminated the victim's insurer's duty to pay for some of the special needs of catastrophically injured insureds; it severely limited the expenses which a guardian or conservator can recover--even though the need for the conservator arises from catastrophic motor vehicle injuries.  This week, it held that insurers owe no duty to pay for a van even though the catastrophically injured insured needs one for transportation.

Althought the majority suggested it is "mindful of cost containment for mandatory insurance coverage," in fact, no one regulates insurance premiums or profits and it is patently obvious to any Michigan motorist that these restrictive rulings have not been reflected in reduced insurance premiums.  On the other hand, Michigan insurer profits are enormous at a time when investment income is down dramatically.

Only five justices heard the Admire case, and the four staunch insurance activists ruled that Admire could hire a taxi to attend medical appointments:  the insurer owed no duty to provide him with basic transportation.  As noted, this overturns 40 years of  consistent (and directly contrary) interpretation of the insurer's duty.  The majority characterized Admire's need for specialized transportation as "a mere change in the injured person's postaccident expenses" which was not "wholly different [in] essential character" from pre-accident expenses.

Unbelievably, the majority declaimed that "the character of plaintiff's ordinary transportation needs remains unchanged."  It concluded that if he "already owned a van, defendant [AutoOwners] could have modified that van.  If plaintiff wanted a Mercedes van, he could pay for the added luxury, and defendant could modify the van..."  Perhaps this paragraph of the opinion best demonstrates the detachment of these judges:  maybe they think that ordinary people are simply deciding whether or not to own a Mercedes?  Either that, or the people who are deciding whether or not to own a Mercedes are the only people that these Justices identify with or care about?

As Justice Cavanaugh pointed out in his dissent, neither the no fault law nor earlier opinions of the Court justify this radical departure from prior practice.  As a practical matter, Kenneth Admire's basic needs for care, recovery or rehabilitation include "reasonable charges" for extraordinary transportation.  The Court's callous discussion of Mercedes Benz "choices" is irrelevant to the practical difficulties faced by persons who have suffered a catastrophic injury.  Nothing in the no fault statute justifies relieving no fault insurers of those necessary expenses which happen to be similar in nature to the victim's pre-accident needs.

By the majority's logic, an injured person who must remain on a ventilator will soon be required to pay for the ventilator and related hospital care....because prior to the catastrophic injury, he breathed oxygen. The Republicans' dismantling of the judicial system on behalf of "commerce" and the insurance industry is the worst form of judicial activism and represents a callous disregard of the suffering of people already victimized by injury.  Now, they are victimized a second time by politics.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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