Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket # 333315; Unpublished
Judges Jansen, Cavanagh and Cameron; Non-Unanimous, Per Curiam (Judge Jansen, dissenting)
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion; Link to Dissent
In this unanimous unpublished per curiam Opinion involving claims for auto negligence and first-party no-fault benefits, the Court of Appeals held the trial court improperly granted summary disposition to defendant-insurer and defendant-driver because there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether plaintiff’s injuries arose from the motor vehicle accident, as required by MCL 500.3105(1).
In January 2014, plaintiff was injured in an accident with defendant-Scaggs. Plaintiff was taken to the hospital after the collision, where she complained of neck pain. At the hospital, it was determined that plaintiff had “whiplash or cervical strain.” Plaintiff awoke the next day with back pain and saw her primary care physician. In March 2014, plaintiff received a CT scan of her lumbar spine, which showed that she had a “nondisplaced, nonhealed fracture involving the inferior articular process on the right at L2, and with extension into the right L2-L-3 facet joint.” Plaintiff received follow-up treatment and, in September 2014, Dr. Stephen Bartol performed surgery on plaintiff’s lower back. At deposition, plaintiff testified that before the January 2014 collision, she had not been involved in any other car accident, had not had any slip and fall accidents requiring medical care and never had any broken bones. She also testified that she never had any back pain or treatment prior to the January 2014 car accident. In March 2015, plaintiff filed this action for auto negligence against defendant-Scaggs and for underinsured and first-party no-fault benefits against defendant-USAA. Defendant-USAA moved for summary disposition regarding bills related to plaintiff’s back surgery, alleging the surgery was performed to fuse a fracture that predated the January 2014 accident and it was not liable for paying plaintiff’s medical bills. Defendant-Scaggs also moved for summary disposition, asserting that plaintiff’s lumbar fracture predated the January 2014 collision and was not exacerbated by the accident. The trial court granted defendants’ motions for summary disposition. With respect to defendant-Scaggs, the trial court ruled the undisputed evidence did not support that Scaggs’ actions were the “cause-in-fact” of plaintiff’s back injury. With respect to defendant-USAA, the trial court held that plaintiff “failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact that the fracture was either caused by or exacerbated by the motor vehicle accident ….” The trial court denied plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration.
The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the trial court’s ruling.
Regarding defendant-USAA, the Court of Appeals found the trial court’s ruling was based on the ground that the auto accident did not cause or exacerbate plaintiff’s lower back fracture. Citing MCL 500.3105, the Court pointed to the fact that plaintiff sought treatment for lower back pain the day after the collision and the results of a CT scan indicated that plaintiff had a lower back fracture. The Court further noted there was evidence that plaintiff was not experiencing any symptoms or receiving treatment for her lower back before the January 2014 accident, and that plaintiff’s 2010 medical records indicated her treatment at that time was related to headaches, abdominal pain and nausea – not her lower back. The Court wrote:
“[T]he trial court seemingly ignored this evidence and therefore erroneously held that Dr. Bartol’s affidavit was the ‘only relevant evidence offered by Plaintiff to support her assertions that the motor vehicle accident either caused or exacerbated her injuries.’ Even if Dr. Bartol’s affidavit was conclusory and insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact on its own, the trial court essentially engaged in improper fact-finding and weighing of the evidence by disregarding the record evidence that tended to show that any preexisting condition of plaintiff’s may have been aggravated as a result of the motor vehicle accident. …Viewing the record evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff …, a jury could reasonably conclude that plaintiff had some degree of a preexisting fracture in the lumbar region of her spine that did not require medical treatment before the January 8, 2014 motor vehicle accident and that after the accident, this fracture began causing plaintiff severe pain in her lower back requiring medical treatment and eventually surgery. A reasonable jury could therefore find that the motor vehicle accident aggravated the condition in plaintiff’s lower back. … Here, reasonable minds could differ regarding the extent of any preexisting condition that plaintiff may have had in the lumbar region of her spine and the extent to which the motor vehicle accident may have caused either a new injury or the exacerbation of a preexisting condition with respect to plaintiff’s lumbar spine. Therefore, the trial court erred by granting USAA’s partial summary disposition motion because there exists genuine issues of material fact regarding whether plaintiff’s lower back injury arose out of the motor vehicle accident.”
As for defendant-Scaggs, the Court of Appeals noted the trial court’s decision was also based solely on causation grounds. The Court held:
“Viewing the record evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff … establishes that a jury could reasonably conclude that any preexisting lower back injury was asymptomatic before the January 8, 2014 motor vehicle accident and was aggravated by the trauma and strain to plaintiff’s back and neck that she endured during the accident. The evidence shows a ‘logical sequence of cause and effect’ rather than a mere coincidental relationship. … Additionally, the trial court focused only on plaintiff’s lower back injuries and ignored the evidence that plaintiff was diagnosed with ‘whiplash or cervical strain’ immediately following the accident. Based on the record evidence, a reasonable jury could conclude that it was more likely than not that plaintiff would not have suffered neck injuries or any aggravation to a preexisting lower back condition if not for Scaggs’ conduct, and back and neck injuries are a foreseeable result of a driver’s negligence in causing a motor vehicle accident. Therefore, the trial court erred because there exists genuine issues of material fact regarding the cause in fact of plaintiff’s injuries.”