Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #355805; Unpublished
Judges Letica, Kelly, and Riordan; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion
In this unanimous, unpublished, per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment of no cause of action following a jury trial in Plaintiff Antoinette Pellegrino’s first-party action against Defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (“State Farm”). The Court of Appeals held, first, that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding evidence related to State Farm’s handling of Pellegrino’s claim for no-fault PIP benefits, because such evidence was not relevant to the central issue in this case: whether Pellegrino’s injuries were caused by the subject motor vehicle accidents. The Court of Appeals held, second, that the jury’s verdict was not against the great weight of the evidence, considering Pellegrino had a history of back and neck problems predating the accidents, and one doctor testified at trial that her injuries were entirely degenerative.
Antoinette Pellegrino was involved in two motor vehicle accidents, the first on December 7, 2016, and the second on August 25, 2017. She alleged that the accidents caused or exacerbated injuries to her neck and back and sought no-fault PIP benefits related to said injuries from State Farm. State Farm denied her claim, prompting Pellegrino to file the underlying first-party action, which eventually proceeded to trial. The issue at trial was whether Pellegrino’s injuries were causally connected to the two accidents: her treating physician, Dr. Richard Easton, testified that they were; another doctor, Dr. Saad Naaman, testified that her symptoms were attributable entirely to neck and back problems which predated the accidents. Also at trial, Pellegrino attempted to introduce evidence related to State Farm’s handling of her claim, but the trial court excluded said evidence upon finding that it lacked relevance to the issues in the case. Ultimately, the jury concluded that Pellegrino’s injuries were not caused by the accidents and the trial court entered a judgment of no cause of action.
On appeal, Pellegrino argued, first, that the trial court abused its discretion by excluding evidence related to State Farm’s handling of her claim. The Court of Appeals held that such evidence was not relevant to the issue of causation, and noted that the case Pellegrino relied on in making this argument, Morales v State Farm Mut Auto Ins Co, 279 Mich App 720 (2008), only held that evidence of an insurer’s handling of a claim was relevant insofar as it bore on whether a claimant was entitled to no-fault penalty interest under MCL 500.3142. In this case, the jury never reached the issue of penalty interest because it found that Pellegrino’s injuries did not, in fact, arise out of the two accidents.
“In this case, the trial court’s decision to exclude evidence of or reference to defendant’s handling of claims in general, or plaintiff’s claims specifically, did not fall outside the range of reasonable and principled outcomes. While plaintiff asserts that the evidence is relevant to (1) whether her injuries arose from the use or operation of a motor vehicle, or (2) the recovery of PIP benefits for allowable expenses under MCL 500.3107(1)(a), we agree with the trial court that evidence regarding how defendant processed plaintiff’s claims for PIP benefits would not have a tendency to make it more probable or less probable that plaintiff’s injuries arose from the use or operation of a motor vehicle. Therefore, the evidence would not be relevant. See MRE 401. Similarly, evidence of how plaintiff’s claims were handled by defendant would not tend to show that plaintiff incurred reasonable charges for reasonably necessary services for her care, recovery, and rehabilitation. See MCL 500.3107. To the extent that plaintiff claims that the evidence of defendant’s handling of her claims would have shed light on whether defendant’s refusal to pay PIP benefits was unreasonable, or whether the delay in paying PIP benefits was unreasonable, this is a determination underpinning a decision whether to award no-fault attorney fees, which is an issue for the trial court to decide after a trial. See MCL 500.3148.”
Pellegrino argued, second, that the jury’s verdict was against the great weight of the evidence. The trial court disagreed, holding that it was not ‘outside the range of reasonable and principled outcomes’ for the jury to have found Dr. Naaman’s testimony more credible than Dr. Easton’s, especially considering Pellegrino’s history of back and neck problems predating the accidents.
“We reject plaintiff’s assertions that the evidence preponderated against the jury’s verdict to the extent that allowing the verdict to stand would be a miscarriage of justice as the overwhelming weight of the evidence did not favor plaintiff. Contrary to plaintiff’s arguments, the evidence admitted at trial supports the jury’s finding that plaintiff’s injuries did not arise out of the December 2016 or August 2017 accidents. While Dr. Richard Easton shared his opinion that plaintiff’s surgeries were causally related to the two accidents, Dr. Saad Naaman offered testimony demonstrating plaintiff was experiencing a degenerative condition in both her back and neck before the December 2016 accident. It appears that the jury found Dr. Naaman’s testimony more credible. See Hecht v Nat’l Heritage Academies, Inc, 499 Mich 586, 605-606; 886 NW2d 135 (2016) (‘[I]n reviewing a motion for JNOV we must construe all evidence and inferences from the evidence in the nonmoving party’s favor’). While plaintiff also testified that her back and neck pain were aggravated and exacerbated by injuries she sustained in the motor vehicle accidents, and Dr. Easton’s medical opinion supported this testimony, considering the evidence of plaintiff’s history of back and neck problems before the accident, and that these conditions were degenerative in nature, the overwhelming weight of the evidence at trial did not preponderate against the jury’s verdict to the extent that it would be a miscarriage of justice to allow the verdict to stand. See Barnes, 334 Mich App at 551. Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied plaintiff’s motion for a new trial.”