Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket # 330999; Unpublished
Judges Borrello, Wilder and Swartzle; Unanimous, Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion
In this unanimous unpublished per curiam Opinion involving plaintiff’s claim for noneconomic damages, the Court of Appeals held that summary disposition was improperly granted for plaintiff because issues remained regarding whether plaintiff’s grandfather’s use of her vehicle was “sufficiently proprietary or possessory” to satisfy MCL 500.3101’s “usage” requirement for constructive ownership and, thus, whether the vehicle was properly insured under Michigan law.
Plaintiff alleged that defendant was intoxicated while operating a vehicle owned by defendant-Dunning Motors and that defendant caused a head-on collision with a Ford Taurus driven by plaintiff and titled in her name. Defendant pleaded no contest to operating while intoxicated causing serious injury. Plaintiff suffered a traumatic brain injury, fractured bones and lacerations in the accident. Plaintiff’s vehicle was insured by Home-Owners, which paid more than $550,000 in PIP benefits.
This action involved plaintiff’s claim against defendants for noneconomic damages brought under MCL 500.3135. Pursuant to §3135(2)(c), a party is barred from recovering damages if the party was operating his or her own vehicle at the time of the injury and if the vehicle was not properly insured. To be properly insured, the law requires, among other things, that the vehicle be insured by an “owner.” In this case, plaintiff acknowledged that she did not insure her 1999 Ford Taurus and, instead, plaintiff’s grandfather, Eugene Johnson, insured the Taurus through Home-Owners (along with four other vehicles he owned). The Taurus policy listed only Johnson and his wife, and the declaration page said: “Automobile driven to work or school 3 miles or less by a 71 year old operator.”
Defendants moved for summary disposition on plaintiff’s claim for noneconomic damages, asserting the Taurus was not insured by an “owner,” as required by §3101(1) and, as a result, plaintiff was barred from recovering noneconomic damages. Plaintiff claimed, however, that Johnson was a “constructive owner.” She argued that, at the time of the accident, she had been living with her grandparents for about 10 years and Johnson helped her when she purchased the Taurus by inspecting the vehicle and making sure it was a worthwhile investment. Johnson testified that he had his own set of keys to the Taurus and drove it “every couple weeks” to make sure it was operating properly. He testified that he did not ask his granddaughter for permission to drive the vehicle, but that he drove it when she was not using it for work. He also testified that he performed and paid for the vehicle’s maintenance, including fuel. Plaintiff maintained that, taken together, these statements confirmed that Johnson was a constructive owner of the Taurus. Defendants, however, alleged these statements amounted to “episodic usage” of the vehicle that did not qualify as proprietary or possessive usage. The trial court granted summary disposition for plaintiff.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s order and remanded the case, finding the evidence was not “so one-sided” that a reasonable juror would be compelled to find for or against Johnson as an owner of the Taurus. In so holding, the Court explained that an injured person is not entitled to damages if operating a vehicle that was not properly insured by an owner at the time of injury.
The Court continued by examining the concept of “constructive ownership,” noting there are various definitions of “owner” under Michigan law. The definition applicable in this case, the Court said, was a person “having the use” of a vehicle for a period greater than 30 days. The Court explained that “having the use” of a vehicle means “using the vehicle in ways that comport with the concepts of ownership” and “ownership follows from proprietary or possessory usage, as opposed to merely incidental usage under the direction or with the permission of another.”
Next, the Court examined case precedent and specifically cited Detroit Med Ctr v Titan Ins Co, 284 Mich App 490 (2009), affirming that the vehicle’s driver was not an owner because there “was no transfer of a right of use, but simply an agreement to periodically lend” the vehicle and that the driver’s use of the vehicle was “sporadic.” The Court also cited Chop v Zielinski, 244 Mich App 677 (2001), where the injured driver’s ex-husband was the vehicle’s title owner, but the injured driver had regularly used the car for more than six months, parked it at her residence, drove it to and from work daily and used it for personal errands. Thus, the Chop panel held the injured driver’s “use of the car in such a manner was possessory use that comports with the concepts of ownership.”
The Court of Appeals further cited Kessel v Rahn, 244 Mich App 353 (2001), where plaintiff was driving a vehicle titled in her mother’s name and did not have insurance. Plaintiff had been using the vehicle for more than a year on a daily basis, it was kept at plaintiff’s home and plaintiff’s mother allegedly no longer drove the vehicle. Thus, the Court said that plaintiff “establish[ed] a sufficient proprietary or possessory use of the vehicle for more than thirty days ….”
Relying on the foregoing cases, the Court of Appeals said:
“[T]hese cases show that, to be a constructive owner, the driver must use the vehicle in a way that an owner would, such as using the vehicle for personal use and driving it on a regular basis. An agreement for periodic use, such as the situation in Detroit Medical Center, does not render a driver a constructive owner.”
Applying this case precedent to the present situation, the Court of Appeals said the facts of the present case were “mixed” on the question of constructive ownership:
“On the one hand, Johnson’s use of the … Taurus could be characterized as incidental. … The record suggests … that Johnson deferred to plaintiff’s use of the vehicle and only drove it when she did not need it for work. … A reasonable juror could view this evidence as showing that Johnson did not use the … Taurus as an owner typically would.”
On the other hand, the Court explained there was evidence that Johnson’s use of the vehicle did have proprietary aspects: 1) he paid to insure the vehicle and the person who regularly drove the vehicle was a family member who lived with him for about 10 years; 2) the Taurus was kept at Johnson’s residence; and 3) Johnson had his own set of keys, he maintained the Taurus and paid to fuel it, and occasionally drove it to make sure it was running properly. According to the Court:
“This usage could be seen as consistent with someone who owned a small fleet of vehicles, including the one in question, and shared usage of that one vehicle with a family member who lived with him.”
Accordingly, the Court of Appeals concluded the record contained evidence that both favored and disfavored a finding of constructive ownership. Therefore the Court held that the trial court erred in granting summary disposition for plaintiff and remanded the case for further proceedings.