Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #357244; Unpublished
Judges Kelly, Cameron, and Hood; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion; Link to Partial Concurrence, Partial Dissent
Entitlement to PIP Benefits: Arising Out of / Causation Requirement [§3105(1)]
In this 2-1, unpublished, per curiam decision (Kelly, concurring in part and dissenting in part), the Court of Appeals affirmed in part, and reversed in part, the trial court’s denial of Defendant Home-Owners Insurance Company’s (“Home-Owners”) counterclaim for declaratory relief in Plaintiff John Stuth’s first-party action against it. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s finding—following a bench trial—that there was a white van traveling in the opposite direction of Stuth just prior to Stuth losing control of his motorcycle and crashing, but the Court reversed the trial court’s ruling that the white van was involved in Stuth’s crashing for purposes of MCL 500.3105(1).
John Stuth crashed his motorcycle after observing a white van traveling toward him in the opposite direction. He applied for no-fault PIP benefits related to the accident with Home-Owners, but Home-Owners denied his claim, arguing that his injuries did not “arise out of the ownership, operation, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle.” Stuth then filed suit against Home-Owners, and Home-Owners filed a counterclaim for declaratory relief, asking the court to find both that there was insufficient evidence that the white van was ever present at the time of Stuth’s accident and that, even if the van had been present, there was no causal connection between its presence and the accident. Central to the causation analysis was Stuth’s deposition testimony, in which he testified that, as he approached the white van, it crossed over the first of two yellow lines dividing the two lanes of traffic—but not both yellow lines, such that it would have entered Stuth’s lane—before correcting and returning to its lane entirely, although not before Stuth tried to take evasive action and crashed. After confirming that the white van ‘immediately corrected’ as soon as it crossed the first yellow line, Stuth answered in the affirmative when asked, ‘So if you had continued on the same path that you were traveling there would have been no accident, is that right?’ The case proceeded to a bench trial in which Stuth prevailed, with the trial court finding both that the white van was present and involved in the accident for purposes of MCL 500.3105(1).
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s finding that the white van was, in fact, present, based on the testimony of multiple witnesses, including Stuth, himself. Such testimony contradicted the evidence Home-Owners presented on the issue of the white van’s presence—specifically, “testimony from several witnesses who spoke to Stuth about the accident occurred and did not recall Stuth even mentioning a motor vehicle”—such that it could not be said that the trial court committed “clear error” in finding that the white van was present at the time of the accident.
“During the bench trial on Home-Owners’s counterclaim, Home-Owners presented testimony from several witnesses who spoke to Stuth about how the accident occurred and did not recall Stuth even mentioning a motor vehicle. Even so, Stuth presented testimony of other witnesses, including his own, attesting the presence of the van. Although Home-Owners opines that it is “implausible” Stuth would omit reporting the van, this Court ‘must afford deference to the trial court’s superior ability to judge the credibility of the witnesses who appear before it,’ Patel v Patel, 324 Mich App 631, 633; 922 NW2d 647 (2018), and this Court may only reverse a trial court’s factual findings on the basis of clear error. Pioneer State Mut Ins Co, 331 Mich App at 405. We conclude that Home-Owners has failed to show that the trial court clearly erred when it found that a van was present just before the accident occurred.
Further bolstering our conclusion were the testimonies of Home-Owners’s witnesses who noted their difficulty remembering how Stuth described the accident. For instance, one witness acknowledged that he only had a ‘vague’ recollection of the accident. Two others agreed they did not ‘have an independent recollection’ of the accident. And a fourth witness said he only had a ‘vague’ memory of speaking to Stuth, but he did not ‘recall word for word outside of what [his] claim notes indicate.’ These testimonies contrasted with two other witnesses, who readily recalled Stuth’s report of the van.
Conflicting evidence regarding the presence of a motor vehicle does not give rise to a conclusion the trial court clearly erred in finding the presence of a motor vehicle. Indeed, reversal on this basis requires a “definite and firm” conviction of a mistake. Because there was evidence attesting Stuth’s version of events, there is no clear error warranting reversal. Therefore, we affirm the trial court’s finding that a van was present at the scene of the accident.”
Despite holding that the trial court did not err in finding that the white van was present at the time of the accident, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling regarding MCL 500.3105(1) causation. Central to the Court’s analysis was Stuth’s statement that he observed the white van resituate itself, such that no accident would have occurred if he had simply continued driving his motorcycle down the roadway as he had been. The Court characterized this as Smith “admit[ing] that he misjudged the situation and lost control of his motorcycle as a result.” In other words, there was no ‘actual, objective need for [Stuth] to take evasive action,’ a prerequisite for finding “motor vehicle involvement” in single-motorcycle crashes, established by the Court in Detroit Med Ctr v Progressive Mich Ins Co, 302 Mich App 392 (2013).
“As Stuth’s testimony demonstrates, the van never crossed the second yellow line and no part of the van entered Stuth’s lane. And importantly, Stuth explained that had he continued on the same path he was traveling, there would have been no need for him to take evasive action to avoid a collision. In other words, Stuth admitted that he misjudged the situation and lost control of his motorcycle as a result. Therefore, Stuth’s decision to veer his motorcycle off the road was based on his incorrect, subjective belief that he needed to take evasive action to avoid a collision. Accordingly, we conclude that Stuth is not entitled to PIP benefits because the white van did not create an actual, objective need for the motorcyclist to avoid the van.
. . .
While Stuth’s leaving the roadway was based on what he mistakenly thought the van was going to do, the trial court erred when it focused its analysis on the reasonableness of Stuth’s actions. Again, whether a motorcyclist is entitled to PIP benefits is an objective test that focuses on the nexus between the motor vehicle’s actions and the accident. The causal nexus was not present in this case because there was not any ‘actual, objective’ need to take evasive action that would have entitled Stuth to PIP benefits.”
Judge Kelly dissented from the majority’s causation analysis and distinguishing this case from Detroit Med Ctr. In Detroit Med Ctr, the subject vehicle “simply did nothing improper and was merely driving down a street at nighttime with its lights on,” whereas in this case, the driver of the white van committed a civil infraction by failing to stay within his lane while rounding a curve, thereby causing Stuth to take evasive action and crash. Such a response to an oncoming vehicle’s civil infraction is reasonable, argued Judge Kelly, irrespective of Stuth’s “after-the-fact speculation that if he had not taken evasive action he would not have been struck by the vehicle.”
“In contrast, under the circumstances presented here—a van committing a civil infraction by not staying within a single lane while rounding a curve—I cannot agree that there was not an ‘actual, objective’ need for Stuth to have taken evasive action nor that the activity of the van did not contribute ‘to the happening of the accident beyond its mere presence.’ See id. In hindsight, Stuth may or may not have needed to take the actions he did for what he at the time deemed necessary in order to avoid a head-on collision with the white van. But, like the trial court, I believe that his actions in doing so were not objectively unnecessary. Indeed, because it is an objective, not a subjective standard, I would not consider dispositive Stuth’s after-the-fact speculation that if he had not taken evasive action he would have not been struck by the vehicle. The question is whether, under an objective standard, there was an actual need to take evasive action at the time of the crash. In light of the evidence showing that Stuth had a split second to react to the white van crossing one of the center lines and moving toward his lane of travel while it was navigating a curve, there was an actual, objective need to take evasive action.”