Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #357934; Unpublished
Judges Swartzle, Cavanagh, and Redford; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion
Definition of Owner [§3101(2)(h)]
In this unanimous, unpublished, per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition order dismissing Plaintiff Nekeyia Williams auto negligence action against Defendants Christine Antoinette Kelly and the City of Detroit, but reversed the trial court’s summary disposition orders dismissing Williams’s first-party action against the Michigan Automobile Insurance Placement Facility (“MAIPF”). With respect to Williams’s auto negligence claim against the City of Detroit, the Court held that that claim was properly dismissed because Williams did not plead it under the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity—she alleged that the City was liable only under theories of owner’s liability, respondeat superior, and negligent hiring and retention. With respect to Williams’s auto negligence claim against Kelly, a bus driver for the City of Detroit who side-swiped the parked vehicle Williams was sitting in, the Court of Appeals held that there was no evidence that Kelly was grossly negligent in causing the accident. Lastly, with respect to Williams’s first-party claim against the MAIPF, the Court of Appeals held that there was a question of fact as to whether Williams was a constructive owner of the uninsured vehicle that she was sitting in at the time of the accident, such as would preclude her from collecting no-fault PIP benefits related to her injuries.
Nekeyia Williams was sitting in an uninsured motor vehicle, registered to her cousin’s fiancé, when it was side-swiped by a City of Detroit bus, operated by Christine Antoinette Kelly. After the accident, Kelly applied for no-fault PIP benefits through the MAIPF, but the MAIPF denied her claim based on its position that she was a constructive owner of the uninsured vehicle at the time of the crash. The MAIPF reached this position after conducting an examination under oath of Williams, in which she testified to have driven the vehicle to-and-from school approximately two times per week a year prior to the accident. Williams ultimately filed suit against the City of Detroit and Kelly for causing her injuries, and against the MAIPF for denying her claim for no-fault PIP benefits. Notably, in her count against the City of Detroit, she alleged that the City was liable for her injuries only under theories of owner’s liability, respondeat superior, and negligent hiring and retention; she did not plead liability pursuant to the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity. Ultimately, the trial court granted summary disposition as to all defendants, based on its finding that Kelly was not grossly negligent and that Williams was a constructive owner of the vehicle at the time of the accident.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition order as to the City of Detroit , but noted that the trial court based its finding on its erroneous conclusion that the City of Detroit, as a government entity, could only be liable for its employees’ gross negligence. Under the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity, a government employee, operating a vehicle in the course and scope of his or her employment, can only be sued in his or her personal capacity for gross negligence, but the agency, itself, is liable for the employee’s ordinary negligence. Nevertheless, the Court held that the trial court reached the right conclusion because Williams never actually pled the motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity as a basis for liability.
“In granting the city of Detroit summary disposition, the trial court stated that ‘the standard is high for a reason. That’s not to say the Court necessarily agrees with it at this point. If this were negligence, I’d be with you. But gross negligence should be gross.’ There is no doubt that the trial court applied a gross negligence standard when analyzing the city of Detroit’s liability, and, thus, it erred in this respect.
Nevertheless, ‘[a] trial court’s ruling may be upheld on appeal where the right result issued, albeit for the wrong reason’ . . .
In this case, Williams alleged that the city of Detroit was liable for her injuries under theories of owner’s liability, respondeat superior, and negligent hiring and retention. Williams concedes that none of these claims are statutory exceptions to the city of Detroit’s governmental immunity. At no point did Williams allege in her complaint that her claim against the city of Detroit was exempted from governmental immunity under the motor-vehicle exception, MCL 691.1405, or any other exception. For this reason, summary disposition on the basis of governmental immunity under MCR 2.116(C)(7) was appropriate for the city of Detroit.”
The Court of Appeals also affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition order as to Kelly, holding that mere evidence that she sideswiped Williams’s vehicle, with nothing more, could not support a finding that she acted grossly negligently.
“Kelly’s side-swiping of two cars, by itself, does not demonstrate that she was so reckless as to demonstrate a substantial lack of concern for whether an injury resulted. Moreover, the facts contained in the record do not substantiate that Kelly acted grossly negligent. This Court was not presented with a deposition of Kelly or a video of the crash in the lower court record; evidence which could have presented more information regarding Kelly’s actions. Furthermore, by the time Williams responded to Kelly’s motion for summary disposition, and by the time the trial court held a hearing on the matter, discovery in this case had closed. Therefore, on the basis of the admitted evidence, Kelly was entitled to governmental immunity and summary disposition for Kelly was appropriate under MCR 2.116(C)(7).”
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s summary disposition order as to the MAIPF, holding that a question of fact existed as to whether Williams was a constructive owner of the vehicle at the time of the accident. While Williams testified that she drove the vehicle approximately two times per week a year prior to the accident, she also testified that she did not have her own set of keys to the car, that she would have to ask permission to drive the car, that she never performed maintenance or repairs on the car, and that she had never gotten the car washed. Thus, even if she had used the car twice per week, it could have been “mere incidental usage with permission,” which is not sufficient to render an individual a constructive owner.
“The trial court granted the MAIPF summary disposition because it found that Williams was a constructive owner of the car after she testified during her examination under oath, as part of her application for benefits, that she had previously driven the car twice a week. During the examination under oath, Williams was asked if she ever drove the car, and she answered ‘no.’ She then clarified that she had driven the car before and that she used it for school ‘several times.’ When asked ‘how often per week,’ Williams answered, ‘probably last year around probably twice.’ Williams was then asked, ‘two times per week?’ to which the reporter asked, ‘was that a yes,’ and Williams responded, ‘Yes. Yes. Sorry about that.’ During her subsequent deposition, Williams clarified that she did say that she had driven the car twice per week, but that she was confused when she answered that question.
Williams also stated, at her examination and her subsequent deposition, that she did not have keys for the car, she would have to ask her fiancé’s cousin for permission to drive the car even though he would always give her permission, she had not performed maintenance or repairs on the car, and she had not gotten the car washed.
Given all of the facts in this case, and that ‘the focus must be on the nature of the person’s right to use the vehicle,’ Twichel, 469 Mich at 530, there remains a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Williams was a constructive owner of the car because, even if Williams had used the car twice a week, mere incidental usage with permission is not sufficient to render an individual a constructive owner under the no-fault act. Ardt, 233 Mich App at 691. Further, Williams consistently testified that she had to ask for permission to use the car, and she did not have her own key. Therefore, the trial court erred when it granted summary disposition to the MAIPF on this issue.”