Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket # 329214; Published
Judges Jansen, Murphy and Riordan; Unanimous Opinion by Judge Murphy
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion
In this unanimous per curiam Opinion for publication, involving a 15-year-old who was operating a vehicle without the required licensed adult accompanying her in the car, the Court of Appeals held the trial court properly denied the no-fault insurer’s motion for summary disposition because the terms “unlawfully taking” and “unlawfully using” a vehicle under MCL 500.3113(a) are not synonymous and interchangeable.
Plaintiff’s 15-yearold daughter, Alison, was severely injured when she lost control of the vehicle she was driving and crashed into a ditch. At the time of the accident, Alison had completed and passed a driver’s training course and had a permit to drive, as long as she was accompanied by a licensed parent, guardian or 21-year-old. At the time of the accident, Alison was not accompanied by a licensed parent, guardian or 21-year-old. The involved vehicle was owned by plaintiff and insured by defendant Home-Owners Insurance Company. Plaintiff filed a claim for PIP benefits with Home-Owners, telling the insurance adjuster that Alison did not have permission to drive the vehicle when the accident happened. As a result, Home-Owners denied coverage under MCL 500.3113(a) and applicable language in the no-fault policy. Plaintiff later contacted the adjuster and asked if coverage would be permitted if her partner had allowed Alison to use the vehicle. The adjuster reportedly informed plaintiff that Home-Owners would “reevaluate” coverage if Alison had been given permission, but the adjuster never heard anything further from plaintiff. Plaintiff then brought an action challenging Home-Owners’ denial of PIP benefits. Home-Owners moved for summary disposition, claiming Alison had unlawfully taken the vehicle and that parental permission was irrelevant considering that, in light of Alison’s age and her driving restrictions, plaintiff would have violated the law by allowing Alison to drive without a licensed parent, guardian or 21-year-old in the vehicle with her. Plaintiff, however, argued that Alison had taken the vehicle lawfully and had permission to take and drive the car on her own at the time of the accident. Plaintiff further alleged that Alison’s lack of a full driver’s license was irrelevant with respect to whether she took the car lawfully, and that Home-Owners was confusing “unlawful taking” with “unlawful use.” The trial court denied Home-Owners’ motion for summary disposition. At trial, plaintiff testified that her initial statement to the insurance adjuster was not truthful and that Alison actually had permission to take and use the vehicle on the day of the accident. Plaintiff acknowledged that, at the time she gave the statement to the adjuster, she feared criminal liability for letting her daughter drive. Home-Owners moved for a directed verdict at the close of proofs. The trial court rejected Home-Owners’ motion. The jury determined that Home-Owners did not show that Alison took the vehicle without permission. The jurors made additional findings as to the nature and amount of allowable expenses and interest to which plaintiff was entitled. The trial court entered a judgment consistent with the jury’s verdict.
On appeal, Home-Owners argued that Alison took the vehicle unlawfully, given her age and restricted license, and this precluded PIP benefits under §3113(a). The Court of Appeals disagreed with Home-Owners and upheld the jury verdict for plaintiff.
In making its ruling, the Court noted there was no genuine issue of material fact that Alison was 15 years old when the accident occurred and that, in light of the limited nature of her driving permit, it was unlawful for her to operate the car unaccompanied by a licensed adult. Therefore, the Court addressed the question of whether these undisputed facts precluded the recovery of PIP benefits under §3113(a) as a matter of law. When applying §3113(a), the first inquiry is whether the taking of the vehicle was unlawful, the Court of Appeals explained. If the taking was lawful, the inquiry ends.
According to the Court of Appeals, §3113(a) focuses on the legality of a taking from the perspective of the driver. The Court noted that in Spectrum Health Hosp v Farm Bureau Mut Ins Co of Mich, 492 Mich 503 (2012), the Michigan Supreme Court had observed that “a vehicle is ’unlawfully taken’ if it is taken without the authority of its owner . . . Therefore, MCL 500.3113(a) does not apply to the lawful owner of a vehicle, even if that person drives it under a circumstance that renders him or her legally unable to operate a vehicle.” The Court of Appeals also pointed out that the distinction between unlawfully taking a vehicle and unlawfully using a vehicle was set forth in Rambin v Allstate Ins Co, 495 Mich 316 (2014). In Rambin, the Supreme Court said that “the unlawful use of a vehicle … is not relevant under the unlawful taking language in MCL 500.3113[.]” Thus, the unlawful operation or use of a motor vehicle is irrelevant to the determination of the preliminary inquiry of whether a vehicle was taken unlawfully. However, the Court noted that driving while legally unable to do so could have implications under §3113(a) for a person who has, in fact, taken a vehicle unlawfully because a person cannot reasonably believe that he or she is entitled to use a vehicle when the person knows that he or she is unable to legally operate the vehicle.
The Court also rejected Home-Owners’ argument that there was no effective authorization to operate the vehicle because it was unlawful for plaintiff to authorize her 15-year-old daughter to drive the motor vehicle. The Court reiterated the distinction between “operating” or “using” and “taking.” While it was unlawful for plaintiff to authorize her 15-year-old daughter to operate the vehicle, it was not unlawful for plaintiff to authorize her daughter to take the vehicle. The daughter did not gain possession of the vehicle contrary to Michigan law; rather, she operated the vehicle contrary to Michigan law.
Based on the foregoing and recognizing it was a “fine line,” the Court of Appeals held that Home-Owners’ arguments were unpersuasive, because they ultimately conflated the unlawful use or operation of a vehicle with the unlawful taking of a vehicle.