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The jury or the four conservatives on the Supreme Court?

        In 1974 when the Michigan legislature established Michigan's "no fault" auto insurance scheme, it limited those accident victims who could sue a wrong-doer (and indirectly the wrong-doer's insurance) to persons who had suffered death, permanent serious disfigurement or a serious impairment of bodily function.  The latter definition is the one which has received the greatest scrutiny by succeeding legislatures and courts.

        Initially, the courts noted the Legislature's failure to define a "serious injury" and ruled that it must be left to jurors to interpret in accordance with the common understanding of the word.  When insurers pressed for a "catastrophic" definition of  serious, the Supreme Court eventually intervened and restored the original "serious" language of the statute.  The Legislature then revisited the no fault act and helped to provide some definition to "serious" by requiring that the injury be "objectively manifested" and that certain factors be considered; it rejected a "catastrophic" definition and retained the common sense "serious" interpretation.

       In 2004, however, Michigan's very partisan Governor enjoyed the opportunity to appoint several very conservative, insurance-oriented Justices to the Supreme Court bench.  He seized this opportunity and appointed to the Court special interest advocates such as the chief counsel for AAA Insurance and the husband of his own Chief of Staff.  Forming a narrow majority on the Court, these four appointees immediately granted several large favors to the insurance industry.  One favor was the re-definition of "serious" for which insurers had lobbied for thirty years, and which had been consistently rejected by the legislature and the courts.

        In the Kreiner case, the Supreme Court majority held that to be "serious" an injury must be "life-altering" and that limitations on recreational activities or limitations caused by pain were of limited consequence.  In successive cases, court holdings ruled that a girl who missed a year of school was not seriously hurt; a plumber who was limited to working 20 hours per week was not seriously hurt; a wheelchair-bound victim who was already incapable of employment could not suffer a serious injury.

        In further demonstration that the Court's definition of "serious" is out of touch with the common parlance, another jury verdict in favor of an innocent injury victim has been thrown out by the appellate court based on the Supreme Court's "Kreiner rule".  In Hamilton v. Gross, a Lvingston County jury had awarded a modest verdict to an innocent young man injured through the negligence of Ms. Gross.  The Court reversed and took away this verdict, holding that the young man's injury could not reasonably be called "serious", despite the jury's decision that it was.  The young man (he was apparently under 18) suffered a fractured ankle requiring surgery and was casted for three weeks and on crutches for "six to eight weeks".  He missed eight weeks of work, was severely limited in recreational activities and faced the potential of future arthritis.  The court held that the proofs he presented on these topics were not adequate to meet the Supreme Court's threshold for establishing a serious injury.  We don't know if this outcome reflects poorly on the attorney who represented the young man, or if it reperesents hyper-critical appellate jurisprudence.  In either event, it is one more example of the difference between ordinary citizens' understanding of "serious" and the extreme definition of "serious" which was championed by the insurance industry and its minions in the Supreme Court.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
Toll Free: 1-800-678-1307
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